A Year Without Meetings
Jeffrey P. Bigham
A year ago today, I proclaimed that I would no longer have meetings.
Being a professor involves a lot of meetings. Most meetings I attend are not a waste, but they are very inefficient. The average meeting I attend is not structured to use time well, and expands to the time block allotted to it. I spend what seems like a huge amount of time pre-meeting arguing back and forth with people’s meeting scheduling bots to arrive at an acceptable time to meet.
Most people I talk to complain about meetings, but they’re still stuck in the grip of meetings. A Twitter search shows I’ve been complaining about meetings for a long time… I bet you have too. So, I proclaimed no more meetings!
In practice, I was able to avoid a number of meetings, and push many “meetings” to email. I still met with people. But, I tried to do so purposefully. I also learned a lot about what makes for good meetings.
- I was able to push off a lot of meetings that didn’t need to happen by slightly changing how I schedule them. When someone wrote asking for a meeting, instead of sending my scheduling bot after them, I simply gave many people a time range during which I would be available, e.g., “I will be in my lab from 2-5pm on Thursday. Feel free to stop by.” Some people stopped by, but most people didn’t. Those who showed up were most interested in talking to me (and, were most interesting). Office hours for the win…
- I feel like people often “jump the gun” and look to schedule a meeting before it’s clear that one is necessary. I often responded with something like, “I find it can be difficult to schedule synchronous time, but am happy to help via email.” It’s hard to make that message come off well… I have started to instead respond with a partial answer, ignoring the request for a meeting.
- Follow through -- sometimes people deep in “meeting culture” would bristle at the notion of me wanting to handle business through email. In one case, a group managing one of our terrible university web applications wanted to meet with me for an hour to get feedback on how they could improve. I said, instead of meeting, I’d email them feedback. I spent the hour I’d have otherwise spent with them creating a detailed and thorough heuristic analysis of common tasks that I do with their system, and used screenshots to illustrate its usability problems. I thought this was much more useful, and given the positive reaction from them I think they probably agreed.
- Removing regular meetings freed up time for explicitly social meetings. A problem with regular meetings is that they attempt to serve two goals, and do both badly: social and work. I used some of my nearly free time to arrange less frequent but purposefully social meetings. I met more people for coffee, I tried to stay at my group’s weekly happy hour longer (I know, big sacrifice…), etc.
- I learned to recognize and love well-organized meetings. Jess Hammer and I taught a new course last year, which meant we really did need to get together to sync fairly often. Fortunately, Jess runs the best meetings! Meetings with Gillian Hayes (with who I co-chaired a CHI subcommittee) comes a close second… mostly second because I don’t even remember having an actual meeting with Gillian, she’s so magical meetings somehow aren’t even required… so maybe she wins? I don’t know, still trying to make sense of it. In any case, in Jess’s meetings, there’s an agenda, we work through that agenda, mostly stick to the agenda, and end with actionable tasks assigned. We ended early when we were done early. Her meetings are by far the exception: she’s made me want to strive toward running my own meetings this way (when I have to have them).
- Finally, making a big deal about how you don’t do meetings, hate meetings, etc., means fewer people ask you for meetings. Maybe this was a positive (!), although I also list it below on the negatives.
What Didn’t Work as Well
- The biggest downside of my year without meetings was probably social. People didn’t understand what I was doing, and thought it was maybe not a great idea. I think maybe they thought I didn’t value the personal interaction that is coincident with formal meetings. Part of this was because I was pretty explicit about it, trying to see how people would react… they reacted… e.g., my dean retweeted me with some good feedback, … I heard a rumor it was brought up during my tenure case by someone else (although, I got tenure, so maybe it wasn’t too serious, haha…)
- Making a big deal about how you don’t do meetings, hate meetings, etc., means fewer people ask you for meetings. I’m not sure this negatively impacted me. I wasn’t nearly the jerk about this as I could have been, and I still went to plenty of meetings. Most people didn’t know I was even doing it, probably.
- Working with people who organize their work around meetings was difficult, and I think it’s fair to say this basically didn’t work out. To some degree that is fine, I just found myself working more with people who also didn’t want to meet all the time. Although it’s unclear this was good overall, in a world in which you have way more opportunities to do stuff than you have time to do stuff, maybe filtering for time savings isn’t the worst way to filter.
- Remote collaborations sometimes suffered -- harder to do those without explicit coordination because you don’t just happen to see remote people in the hall.
Going forward, I’ll probably stop advertising how much I dislike meetings. But, I’ll take my lessons forward. I’m still going to recommend people visit me during office hours, I’m still going to ignore requests for meetings when I believe I can adequately answer via email instead, and I’m still going to try to better organize the meetings that I need to have.
I’ll have my work cut out for me. I just became PhD Co-Director at the HCII, and I’m now part of the ACM Future of Computing Academy. Both of these things involve a lot of meetings. In fact, one of my first steps as PhD Co-Director is to attempt to set up, … wait for it, … a MEETING with each of the PhD students, although the goal is mostly social and I’ll be offering coffee :)
 You know, roughly… somehow this is one of the few things I did that didn’t make it onto Twitter, so I don’t have evidence.
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