Getting out of Meeting Hell: As a regular employee

Posted on Fri 01 October 2021 in blog

Please have a look at the introduction for background, for applicable disclaimers, and for information about the specific environments this series talks about.

So, you're a regular employee (sometimes called an Individual Contributor or IC), who doesn't have a team that reports to you. And you are in an organization that, although it does have remote employees or may even have switched to an all-distributed mode on account of the pandemic, does not adopt basic rules of distributed work and asynchronous communications.

You spend more time in meetings than is healthy, your productivity is severely impacted, you're stressed out from frequent interruptions, you have trouble getting into a state of flow. You may be asked to keep your camera on for hours at a time, and you feel that this badly encroaches on your privacy or sense of personal space. Your manager or your peers like to naked-ping you or send you "hey, I need you for a minute" one-liners that disrupt your train of thought for half an hour.

And your organization (including your peers and direct manager) tolerate or condone this kind of collaboration.

If that sounds like your typical day, I have great news for you. You have at hand an excellent opportunity to improve your personal situation, be more productive, and communicate better with your peers:


Hand in your notice. Quit. Hightail it outta there. If

  • you want to truly improve your personal situation and work effectively in a distributed team, and
  • neither your direct manager nor the top leadership of the organization takes any interest in optimizing for distributed and asynchronous collaboration,

then the way to do that for yourself is to leave your current organisation behind, and go elsewhere. There's plenty of employment opportunities for you to pick up in this industry at this time, and there are a number of organizations that handle distributed work better than the one you're currently in.

Sure, you could consider trying to change the system from within. And there is a small (I'd say minute, but nonzero) probability that you'll be successful, and drive real change in your organization. However, there is an inordinately larger probability that you'll burn out in the process — and endangering your health is never a gamble that's worth taking.

You may think that that’s a pessimistic view. I think the opposite is true. You’re not “failing” to drive change in an organization that resists it, instead you can succeed at pushing change in an organization that embraces it. Throwing your energy into meaningful change for the better is the definition of optimism, in my book. And if the place for that is elsewhere from where you are now, seize that opportunity!

However, note that the foregoing is all predicated on the entire company (including your direct manager) being fine with synchronous work and people having their calendar jammed with back-to-back meetings, with no apparent intent to change. If it’s just you that wants change, or perhaps only you and people at your level in other teams that you can’t reasonably join forces with, I’d argue that you just shouldn’t be risking your health. In contrast, if your manager1 and a couple of your peers are on your side — consider your manager may be in their own learning phase about distributed and async collaboration — then things are a lot less clean cut, and maybe you’d want to stay on for the ride. Particularly so if there's an active, supportive push from the top of the organization.

Even if your manager and some of your peers are on your side, I can think of a few situations where you should still leave: like when your company has an “always on camera” policy, or doesn’t allow people to go audio-only on calls, or promotes number crunching on employee “engagement” in a meeting app. Companies doing that are, in my view, beyond salvation and will never be able to attain the levels of trust required for a distributed organization to function.

So: if you’re stuck in meeting hell with nobody on your side, as a regular employee with no reports, your best way forward is probably the way to the exit. If you're stuck in meeting hell now but there's a gale blowing the company into async & distributed mode, and/or you have a very thick-skinned manager that gets it, and will deflect and absorb any pressure from meeting-addicted higher-ups, you may want to hang on for the journey.

  1. I’d posit that the only manager that really matters in this scenario is your direct line manager. That person would your make-or-break partner in any transformation of how your team collaborates. If you and they don’t share views, then don’t expect to be able to play four-dimensional chess by forming an alliance with some other manager who you then expect to influence your manager so that everyone gets better at distributed and async work. You don’t want to trade being stuck in meeting hell for being in stuck in meeting hell and corporate politics.