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Managing Meetings Thoughtfully & Improving Workflow for Your Team

Jenna Hasenkampf • April 11, 2022 • 10 minutes to read

What causes “good enough” work to happen instead of quality work? For me, this usually occurs when I’m rushing because of either too much work or too many interruptions. When we asked our team at MKG to reflect on what gets in their way of larger thinking and fulfilling work, unsurprisingly, “meetings” were consistently mentioned. Meetings are a chance to connect and collaborate, but they also can make us feel exhausted and contribute to burnout and dissociation. Hearing the team loud and clear, I set out in 2021 to address the negative impact our current meeting structure was having on productivity and morale. I found some references that resonated with me that I’ve listed at the end of this (lots of smart people have written about this subject), and created my own approach and takeaways on how to cut down on meetings in a strategic way.

We’re remote at MKG so most of our client interactions and a lot of our team interactions are meetings and as we’ve grown, our meetings have grown in size and frequency. Sprinkle some global pandemic in the mix and meetings continued to balloon as our in-person social interactions dwindled and we relied more on work to engage with people. There were good things that came from our team coming together and spending time supporting each other and collaborating for sure, but holistically workdays started to feel draining and tasks focused based on time limitations rather than strategic and fulfilling.

Meetings should serve a purpose and not be a default

Too often meetings are the default for making decisions or getting things done as a group. MKG’s approach has often been that if you’re working on something, you should be in the meeting. A benefit of that is it puts everyone on equal footing and also does away with the game of telephone between an account person, their client, and their team. But at MKG our team is client-facing and we have a lot of options, like Asana, and zoom chat, and google docs, so keeping people in the loop or getting input that doesn’t require a meeting.

We also record every client call and a lot of internal calls and those recordings can be watched at 1.5x the speed (faster if you’re really ambitious and you don’t have a fast talker like me on the call). You can also skip around in recordings to find applicable discussion rather than sit through it all. Having every person on every call by default doesn't always value their time and smaller calls also provide more personal connection opportunities which are important in remote relationships. I asked our team to start considering who is “optional” to encourage people to make choices with their time, ideally empowering the individual participant by including them in the decision of attendance. A true benefit of this is reminding every team member that their time is valuable and we want to treat it that way.

"Time is, hands down, our most coveted, most unrenewable resource. If being on the receiving end of one of life's most valuable gifts fails to leave you with a lump in your throat or butterflies in your stomach, then you're not paying attention." - Brené Brown, Dare To Lead

Non-meeting time is essential and needs to be protected

MKG used to have a "no-meeting day", but as we grew, it wasn’t maintained because there was so much overlap on teams. A "no-meeting" day is exactly what it sounds like, no scheduled meetings on a predetermined day. Besides providing space to work on larger projects, “no-meetings day” has two other important benefits:

  1. More uninterrupted work time to free up brain space. Being able to really focus requires time. Ideally, we want our team to be able to focus enough to consider beyond the immediate ‘ask’. Time management is really distracting, when you're hopping from meeting to meeting you’re always watching the clock as you work. Fewer meeting interruptions open up thought space that is essential to agency growth and quality of work. More time to focus is more likely to provide the chance to discover whether that work has larger opportunities or implications for that client, for other clients, or even agency innovation.
  2. Limiting meeting availability forces prioritization and encourages problem-solving. By having to schedule around a “no-meeting day”, it can help weed out unnecessary meetings and encourage independent or creative problem-solving. If your go-to person to solve an issue isn’t available and it’s time-sensitive, that’s your next move? Ultimately this should encourage growth, as well as cut down on the infamous 'this could have been an email' situation, or more likely in our case, this could have been tackled asynchronously.

MKG schedules recurring client calls Tuesdays-Thursdays and we use Mondays and Fridays as “catch up” from/before the weekend days. Using the existing framework, we moved the majority of recurring internal meetings to Mondays and Fridays. This frees up more time Tuesday - Thursday and one of these days becomes the “no-meetings day”. I also like the “no-meetings day” being on Tues-Thurs because it’s less likely to fall on a holiday or PTO and more likely to be consistently available to the team.

Unfortunately, it’s not feasible for us to schedule the same no-meeting day for all of MKG on the same day due to different time zones and client availability, so our work around is doing it by client teams. Some teams may even differ days on alternating weeks, depending on their client meeting schedules. A good rule of thumb I try to follow is don’t be overly rigid or complicated about something that is meant to be helpful. If you can pick and follow a company-wide “no-meetings day” it sets a standard that’s easier to support, but it does come at the cost of individual or team-based flexibility.

Meetings are costly, both in time and the energy

Chopped-up schedules interrupt deep thinking and negatively impact work quality and output. If you also start thinking in terms of cost impact, the larger the list of attendees— the more expensive a meeting becomes—especially if it is recurring.

When I have a heavy meeting day on a day that I’m mentally “in the zone” and could dive in and get a lot of work done, it’s frustrating and demoralizing. It creates a clear cost to my time in meetings, and begs the question ‘are these meetings more valuable than the to-dos on my plate that support operations, team growth, and client support?’ Sometimes the answer is a clear YES, but sometimes it’s a clear NO. I’m not unique in this, all of my team works on larger strategic projects.

A last point to remember with the cost of meetings, it’s not only the time and energy it takes for the actual meeting, it’s also the preparation and the next steps they typically require from the organizer and attendees. Rarely do we have a meaningful meeting without preparation and next steps.

Meetings add value so you need a strategy to cut down on meetings

Live collaboration is still valuable. Creativity can feed off of energy from other people, questions can come up from hearing other points of view and ideas, and there can be magic in those meetings. There’s also the fact that when working remotely we need to intentionally create connections with each other and interactions, and meetings are a necessary part of that. We also need to be able to connect with our clients and working sessions can produce great work. So it’s essential to strategically find that balance of meetings vs work time to not lose the values that meetings can produce while also not losing the value of interrupted work time.

Fortunately, approaching meetings systemically rather than individually actually makes it easier to find your balance.

To create a list of “essential recurring meetings” I considered:

  • What meetings contribute to our client relationships?
  • What meetings are important to work flow?
  • What meetings support our company values and culture?

Critically reviewing our meetings against these three categories, I created this list:

Client Relationship Meetings to Keep:

  • Client Calls: We have weekly and bi-weekly work sessions for clients that are essential to those relationships and collaboration.

Workflow Meetings to Keep:

  • Expert Team Meetings: These support our team's growth, collaboration, and connections
  • Stand-ups: These allow the team to quickly connect on in-progress priorities to troubleshoot efficiently and are directly owned by the client circle and up them to determine the frequency and attendee list
  • Weekly AD sprint planning: This meeting maps the next week’s work schedule and supports real-time prioritization with team members working across multiple ADs

Company Values/Culture Meetings to Keep:

  • 1-on-1s: The meetings where team members check in on how things are going, get and give feedback, and are supported on growth.
  • Retrospective: Our weekly all-agency to share work retrospectives, brainstorm on clients, and each shares professional and personal “thankful” moments from our week. This meeting is a way we stay connected as a larger whole.

I worked with the team to move internal meetings to Mondays and Fridays as much as possible, delete any recurring meetings that didn’t make this list, and consider the frequency of these recurring meetings against valuing their work time. One of our team members, Nathan Stenberg, also suggested adding an indicator of “internal” meetings for better visibility in prioritizing time so we added “IN” at the beginning of all internal meetings. I then asked the ADs to work with the 1:1s and client circles and make sure that everyone, including them, have a clearly indicated “no-meetings day” on their weekly calendar.

Having the Right Tools for Asynchronous work & structure for impactful meetings

MKG was a remote-first agency from the beginning and has over ten years of experience building infrastructure to support this. I don’t want to take that for granted that everyone has this so here are some examples of tools that support our collaborations, reviews, and approvals without meeting.

  1. Asana: A digital project management system that allows us to easily see what someone is working on, request feedback or information, store a change log and references, and now it even allows video comments through Vimeo
  2. Zoom Chat: Zoom is our video conferencing program, but we also use the chat so it’s easy to go to video if we need to, and it shows if someone is already on a call. Everyone on our team is on during their working hours and it’s easy to quickly ask a question or share ideas and thoughts in short form.
  3. Google Workspace: Rather than using a server, we use Google for almost everything. It’s our email, calendars, storage, and document/file creating tool. The docs/sheets/slides allow you to work on documents at the same time and easily be able to see who revised what and be able to go back to previous file versions if you need to.

When meetings do add value it’s important to structure them for success ahead of time. This means clearly communicating roles and expectations so everyone attending knows how they should show up and what we’re working towards. It’s not just a way to create purposeful, efficient meetings, this also shows you value each other’s time with the prep and clear expectations.

I made this cheat sheet for our team to help guide whether to have a meeting and how to structure them for maximum value.

Ultimately I want our team empowered to make their own decisions with their time and priorities wherever they can. I trust them to know what they need to create great work and by providing some more structure and open time-space we can support this as an organization and hopefully lead to some further improvements inspired by this.

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