Getting out of Meeting Hell: What this is about

Posted on Thu 30 September 2021 in blog • 4 min read

In 2020, I presented a talk at FrOSCon titled No, we won’t have a video call for that: Communications for distributed teams. In early 2021 I put together a full-length writeup of that talk, and published it here. And for no apparent reason that article then made it to the top of Hacker News on one day in September 2021,1 and apparently resonated with quite a few people.

And after that, I got a fair number of questions along the lines of “okay, what you talk about is a spot-on description of how I want to work, but how do I get there?” In other words, what can you do in order to transition from a team that’s stuck in meeting hell, to one that actually goes fully distributed and embraces asynchronous communications?

Note: I use the shorthand Meeting Hell for a situation in which people are forced to be in unnecessary and unproductive video meetings2 for an unhealthy fraction of their work time.

This is admittedly a mere symptom of not having adopted asynchronous and distributed ways of working, but it’s such a tell-tale sign thereof that it counts as a dead giveaway. Thus, I think it’s okay to say “I’m stuck in meeting hell” when what someone means is really “I work in an organization that’s failing badly at distributed and asynchronous work.”

So what I’m doing here is offer suggestions for getting out of that. If

  • you’re one of the people that has 25 meetings a week, or
  • you spend 60% of your work week in standups and planning and retro, or
  • the only time you have for doing what you actually signed up for is in overtime,

and it’s grinding you down, and you want to work differently, then this series might be for you.

Personal strategies: one size does not fit all

I think it’s very important to differentiate personal strategies for getting to distributed & async, based on your position in the company or organization. So, I’m going to look at it from three angles:

  1. Your options if you are what some companies call an “Individual Contributor”, or IC. In other words, these are for you if you are a regular employee (or contractor), and you’re not personally responsible for other people — in other words, you have no reports.

  2. Your options if you are at some level of management that is not top organizational leadership. That is to say, you have people that report to you, but you also report to someone.

  3. Your options if you’re a top-level executive, meaning you’re a Chief Executive Officer or Managing Director or Executive Director or something of the sort. You have people that report to you, but you don’t directly report to anyone — even though you may be answerable to a Board of Directors or some other oversight body, of course.

These are my views, not self-evident truths

Now, I’m only going to talk about my industry (software-driven technology) because that’s the only industry I feel remotely qualified to talk about. Also, I have never worked in a company that had more than 3,000 employees, and I feel most at home in small outfits under 50. I’m reasonably confident that what I talk about is somewhat useful for companies from 3 to 3,000 people in the software industry. It may be applicable elsewhere — larger companies, other industries — but at any rate, I make no guarantees of any kind. Feel free to adopt an entirely contrarian position. And, you should also know I am not a scientist, so none of what I write is informed by rigorous empiricism.

So, are we cool with that? My opinion, my thoughts, my views — not pronouncements of absolute truth.

Let’s get started.

  1. For context: it was at the top for like three hours on a Saturday morning. So it might have landed there just because enough people were simultaneously bored enough to give it a read… 

  2. Meeting Hell might also apply to excessive in-person meetings in a shared work space, such as an office. However, I really don’t believe my industry will ever go back to defaulting to office-based work, now that it has shown for nearly two years that it can function, in principle, in a default-distributed mode. Thus, I am using the word “meeting” as synonymous with “video meeting” in this series, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this eventually became the norm.

    Think of this as akin to the transition undergone by the word call: before the advent of the telephone, a call was a visit you paid to someone’s house. Then, if you metaphorically “visited” someone by telephone, that was a telephone call. Now a call is always a phone call, except when explicitly specified as a house call.