In a recent episode of my podcast, I dove deep on the topic of meeting overload during our current moment of pandemic-induced remote work. I want to expand here on one of the more radical (but intriguing) solutions I mentioned: the reverse meeting.
First, a little background. Why are we suddenly spending so much more time in meetings now that we’re working from home? There are multiple factors involved.
For example, the sudden shift out of the office created a lot of unexpected new questions that had to be answered. In the moment, scheduling a meeting is an easy way to relieve the anxiety of having these new and pressing demands on your plate.
(Remember: the one productivity system that is universally trusted is the calendar, so if a meeting related to a new issue is scheduled, you can trust that it won’t be forgotten, and you therefore no longer have to keep track of it in your head. This grants immediate relief.)
Another factor is a reduction in the energy and social capital expended when organizing online gatherings. Pre-pandemic, setting up a meeting meant reserving a conference room and requiring your colleagues to physically relocate themselves at your request. There’s enough of a cost here that you might think twice before casually convening these conversations.
In a remote setting, however, we’re all just on our laptops all day anyway, so the cost of shooting off a digital calendar invite for a Zoom discussion is much lower. It takes only a couple clicks and the social consequences seem minimal. The result: we setup many more meetings.
This brings us to the question of how to reduce this overload, and therefore back to the idea of reverse meetings. Here’s the concept:
- Everyone maintains regular office hours: set times each week during which they’re always available via video conference, chat, and phone. During these times you can digitally stop by and chat without a prior appointment. (For more on office hours, see this excerpt from A World Without Email on the topic.)
- If you have a topic you want to discuss with a group of your colleagues, instead of gathering them all together in a new meeting, you instead visit each of their office hours one-by-one to talk it through.
- In many cases, these one-on-one conversations should be sufficient for you to reach a resolution on the issue, or at the very least, reduce it down to a very targeted set of questions that can be much more efficiently addressed.
The attention economics of reverse meetings can be much more favorable than our current standard. Consider, for example, a hypothetical scenario where I need to make a decision on a new marketing campaign and need feedback from five of my coworkers. The easy solution is to schedule a meeting to discuss. Let’s say it takes about an hour. This eliminates six people hours — 360 total minutes — of potential attention.
In a reverse meeting scenario, by contrast, I might take only 10 minutes from each colleague, taking up 50 minutes total of my time, and 50 minutes total of their time, for an overall demand of 100 minutes of attention, which is 3.6 times less cost.
As an added bonus, the reverse meeting also reverses the asymmetric consequences of these gatherings. It is now significantly more costly to initiate a meeting than it is to attend. The result? Less meetings are convened in the first place.
There are, of course, many scenarios where this approach doesn’t work, and there are many other strategies that might also help reduce meeting overload. (Another favorite of mine is the meeting quota: each person has three afternoon slots every day for meetings, and that’s it; so once you’ve filled the slots for a given day you have to move on to another day, enforcing an artificial scarcity on collaborative attention and ensuring enough focus is left over for other types of work.)
The broader point, however, is that we need to respond to the current moment with more radical thinking about how we organize our work. For if not now, when?