If you’re easing back into work after the holidays, your calendar has likely been full of catch-ups, debriefs and other meetings designed to get everyone on the same page for 2023.
Unless you work at Shopify.
The Ottawa-based tech giant made waves at the start of the year by culling the calendars of its thousands of employees, scrubbing around 10,000 meetings from the company’s books.
CEO Tobi Lutke said in a tweet last week that “meetings are usually a bug” that “paper over” the root causes of issues.
Experts in the “art” of meeting who spoke to Global News say that while this sweeping action might look like an attack on collaborative work, a hard reset on meetings can have a productive impact on an organization’s operations.
Farhan Thawar, Shopify’s vice-president of engineering, told Global News’ Farah Nasser earlier this week that these kinds of experiments are standard fare for the e-commerce firm’s ethos.
All of Shopify’s recurring meetings of more than two people were automatically removed at the start of the year, and the company set a two-week cooling-off period before new meetings can be added back. All meetings on Wednesday were wiped from the calendar, while any large meetings of 50-plus people are now reserved for Thursday.
Thawar explained that Shopify doesn’t want to “overwhelm” employees with meetings and leave little to no time in the working day for their individual tasks.
“We want to focus on the makers, the builders, and allow them to actually do their work, and have meetings be this sparing thing that happens only once in a while,” he told Nasser.
Say no to bad meetings
But putting a focus on work as just an individual activity can be misguided, according to Jane Porter, founder of Bridge Building Group.
Porter is a certified professional facilitator, which she explains as someone who focuses on giving meetings clear purposes and helping people “gather well.”
“How we meet and what we do when we are together is a little bit of an art,” she says.
Porter argues that meetings are especially critical during the new era of hybrid and remote work, and that the problem is not with the concept of the meeting themselves, but with the tendency to have too many unproductive meetings.
“I think demonizing meetings in general and how we collaborate with our colleagues, especially at a point when we are doing remote work and we are already on an island by ourselves … I think that’s wrong,” she says.
“I don’t think we need to stop meeting. I think we need to stop having bad meetings.”
Shopify went “digital by design” in May 2020 near the start of the COVID pandemic and shifted operations permanently away from physical workplaces, though many employees still gather in person intermittently throughout the year.
The number of meetings workers are being called into has “increased exponentially” in the remote work reality, according to Lindsay Coffin, associate director of human capital at the Conference Board of Canada.
She tells Global News that Shopify is being prudent by encouraging workers to be “intentional” about whether they need to meet as well as “empowering” staff to say no to a meeting they don’t think is right for them.
“I’m sure we’ve all sat in meetings and were like, ‘I don’t know what this is about and I don’t know why I’m here, but I was invited, so I showed up,’” she says.
Thawar said in his interview with Nasser that when it comes to meetings, “subtraction is harder than addition.”
“Meetings are this thing that is easy to add … and hard to say no to, hard to decline. And so we wanted to make it easier for folks to actually just get all this crud off their calendar,” he said.
“Now folks can, over the next two weeks, really figure out what’s important and add those things back in if they provide value.”
Say yes to good meetings
Porter says the first decision that leads to a good meeting or a bad meeting is whether to meet at all.
Managers can figure out if their gathering is a productive one or not by thinking about the goals of the meeting and the verbs associated with it, Porter says.
If your goal is to “share” or to “align” your team, and nothing will be productively discussed or decided, that’s a pretty good sign that an email could do the job, she argues.
Similarly, she says meetings that are too loose and don’t have clear objectives in mind can easily end up being a waste of time.
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“Are you just going to play with sticky notes? Because that might lead to another poor meeting where people are getting frustrated.”
Coffin says that setting an agenda for a meeting can help people know why they’re there and keep the conversation on a productive track.
To Coffin, one of the most important ways to run a meeting is to keep them on time: starting and ending meetings as they’re set in the schedule, or even closing up early if you’ve got everything done and giving people their time back.
“I’m sure a lot of people in that meeting would appreciate the extra 15 minutes to check their email or grab a snack, especially for those working from home who are constantly stuck in those back-to-back meetings,” she says.
Running meetings with a remote workforce can be just as engaging as in-person gatherings, Porter says. While it’s easier for some to turn off their cameras and work on other tasks while in a remote meeting, she argues that employees feeling disengaged in a remote setting could be another sign they didn’t have to be there in the first place.
And after almost three years of working remotely in the pandemic, Porter says we could probably all accept a bit of disruption in the background of our meetings.
“It’s OK to hear a little bit of humanness and see everybody’s faces. I have had the most in-depth, really beautiful, productive conversations with people online. So it’s still very much doable. But you’re working with a different set of factors,” she says.
If Shopify’s meeting experiment proves successful, Thawar said he believes the concept could easily spread to companies beyond the tech sphere.
“The outreach I’ve gotten from folks who said, ‘How did you do this? Are you going to open source the tools?’” he said, “they’re very excited about actually helping employees focus on what matters.”