At Cliniko, we're a team of 42 people. We build a comprehensive and full-featured practice management system. In the past 10 years, we've barely had any meetings – a few each year at most. We didn't plan to avoid meetings, we just never found the need for them. Over time, I've come to appreciate just how much of a productivity boost not having meetings is. We also communicate and collaborate better without them. It's possible, just possible, that other businesses could also benefit from fewer meetings, so I want to share my thoughts about it.
Meetings hurt productivity
My biggest problem with meetings isn't just the meeting itself, but the impact on your productivity. A meeting can loom over you, distracting you and stopping you from getting deeply immersed in a task. Often getting into the zone takes time and effort, particularly time. And once your creativity is flowing, getting knocked out to attend a meeting can be costly. After a meeting, it might then take you 30 minutes or more to get back into it. Maybe you don't even make it back to your productive zone that day.
When a day is full of meetings you might find yourself coming into work early, or staying back late, just to get your actual work done. Something is broken when your "work hours" become the least productive hours of your day.
Aside from the interruptions that meetings cause, I'm not convinced they're the best solution to the problem they're trying to solve. Of course, there are times when a meeting is the answer, but I suspect that's not so often. We can be tricked into thinking a day full of meetings is a busy and productive day. But perhaps it's just busy, and maybe busy doesn't equal productivity, maybe it's even the opposite.
A common reason to have a meeting is to make decisions. But if you want to get my worst decisions, put me on the spot in a room full of people. I can also make bad decisions when I'm tired, or when I'm distracted. If you take away my ability to think about a problem when it suits me best, and require my response at a time that happened to suit everyone to turn up together, it's unlikely to be my best decision-making moment. I might not be the only one.
Asynchronous text-based discussion is better
I'd much rather have a text-based discussion asynchronously, particularly if it's an important topic. Instead of regular meetings, we use a team chat tool (Slack) where we can post information, questions, and ideas to each other, when it suits us. Then others can respond, when it suits them. Everyone can get involved in the conversation when they can give it their best thinking. Also for any given topic, it's inevitable that some team members will be more familiar with it, than others. Asynchronous chat levels the playing field so that everyone can work at their own pace and have time to do further research before weighing in.
When you move to text chat style discussions that aren't "live", other benefits arise. No one needs to record minutes because you can have these conversations in a discoverable place within your company. People that might have missed a meeting are able to catch up. People can choose to join the conversation or not. When you set up a meeting you are making assumptions about who can make valuable contributions. When people can choose to join in, only those that have something to add will spend their time doing so, and you may get great suggestions from unexpected places.
Asynchronous text-based chat also works well for different personality types. A meeting heavily favours extroverted and dominant personalities. When you have a diverse group of people, asynchronous communications can allow everyone to contribute comfortably. Again, it can get a better result.
It's a funny thing too, in many companies you need approval to spend $200, but you can schedule a meeting, no questions asked. Let's say 10 people join the meeting for an hour at a $50 p/hour salary rate, you've just spent $500 of company money. We're almost oblivious to the cost of meetings, and their wastefulness.
Ad-hoc meetings have a place
So obviously I'm critical of meetings, and I think they are destroying productivity in many workplaces, and also hampering decision making. But begrudgingly I'll admit there are times where they make sense. Times when getting together for fast feedback cycle discussions can get you the best outcome. When this is the case, there's a couple of suggestions I have to reduce some of the negative impacts.
I'm a fan of ad-hoc meetings, I don't like to schedule them. If someone in our team wants to discuss something, more often than not, my preference is "right now". I'm already a little distracted by the suggestion to discuss it, and I'd like to do so right away. Mostly, I don't want it scheduled in my calendar to interrupt my productivity at another time, or to even stop me getting productive in the first place. My calendar is empty, and I'm sure that contributes greatly to how much I can get done in a day.
I also don't think meetings should have an end time. Too often a meeting will go for the time it's allocated, just because it was allocated that time. It's also very rare to see a meeting scheduled for 5 minutes. Too much effort goes into getting everyone together, so we try to make it "worth it" even if there isn't a lot to discuss. Ideally, I think a meeting should have a start time, and finish as soon as its job is done. Now I know sometimes this is a logistical issue, scheduling times to book the "meeting room", but perhaps video conferencing tools are the solution to that. It can also save a commute.
If you care about your productivity and want your work hours to actually be for getting work done, maybe fewer meetings is the answer. Looking for better ways to make decisions and collaborate, can not only free up your time, but it can get a better result. I care a lot about my productivity because I know that what matters each day is getting work done, not being busy. That's what impacts our business and our customers. The amount of time I spend doing it matters too, but mostly to my family. The more productive I can be, the less I need to get my work done, outside of "work hours".
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