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Combating Zoom Overload with Reverse Meetings

March 18th, 2021 · 10 comments

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?

10 thoughts on “Combating Zoom Overload with Reverse Meetings

  1. Hi there! Great post! We implemented the reverse meeting concept in our product Remeet.com

    1. Here’s some more details on how Reverse Meetings can be implemented by distributed teams with Remeet’s office hours: https://www.remeet.com/blog/2021-03-18-reverse-meetings/

  2. William says:

    Hi Cal,

    Great post as usual. I’m just wondering how this framework you suggest applies to certain types of meetings, such as brainstorming sessions or design reviews, where it is critical for each person to hear what every one else says. It seems that what you’re suggesting is relevant only in cases where meetings virtually consist of multiple one-on-ones going simultaneously. Thanks!

  3. Excellent post. One should never compare but most of the productivity authors talk about “awesome ideas” that we read, enjoy, and appreciate, but we can not apply them in real life because they are not practical. But all your suggestions, tricks, and methods you provide here and in your books are 100% practical. We can understand and apply these methods in real life. This is the reason I love your books and blog. Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom with all of us.

  4. James says:

    There’s one potential drawback that needs considered here. Different people will have different views on a topic, and often reaching a consensus is more difficult in the reverse-meeting concept. I’ve used it a few times, on projects where I wanted to test the waters before diving in head-first. Sometimes the reverse meeting is all you need; other times, you really do need a meeting to get everyone together and hammer out the final product. Either way is still typically more efficient than a regular meeting, as at the final meeting everyone knows the background and you can just hammer away at the significant issues.

  5. My preferred method is still to call someone (on an “old-school” cellphone) and just talk through the issue. (Usually) depending on the person’s age, they’ll prefer voice or video. (I’m in my 40s)

    But in terms of results, I find video or audio to be about equal.

    In terms of mental focus, video takes a lot more energy than just voice (for me) at least.

    Of course, many people may not want to answer their phone. But in terms of overall productivity (results/energy), it’s way better for me (for less important issues). I can talk/chat with them on the phone while doing something else.

    For music lessons and many other styles of 1-to-1 teaching/tutoring that require more of a visual component, video works better.

    But for more “chore-like” activities, I definitely prefer just the voice.

    Plus, I still feel rude if I am not looking at the person on video when their talking. I notice a lot of other people seem to feel similarly (perhaps depending on the age). When in fact, (for me) most of the info is already conveyed via voice.

    And I’ve not really noticed much productivity improvement (in certain business-style meetings) by switching from voice to video. But I don’t have a lot of personal experience, either.

    And also as an interesting aside, the technology for video chat has been around since at least the 60s, but no one really was interested in it back then.

    (With line breaks added …)

  6. When we work remote the informal, serendipitous conversations that we had around the office become scheduled calendar invites that we call meetings. In the past we would have just walked up to someone and talked to them. Office hours is a good solution but also consider overlapping office hours where the group can be available together without the expectations of a meeting.

  7. Cherylynne says:

    Whether remote or in-office, the reverse meeting approach is relevant. Open video or open door hours during the day makes sense for working towards solutions or agreement in advance of a larger group consensus effort. Two issues I see.

    One, what’s the best work to be doing when you’re ready to be interrupted. Whether stopping by someone’s office, giving a quick call (even from office-to-office), or initiating a video chat still interrupts the other person’s work. How do you factor in the time to return to task with the minutes spent? As much as the meetings are bad line is pushed, it is a place for everyone to meet at once.

    Two, I see parallels between the reverse meeting and a well-run Slack channel. A larger group can watch conversations taking place, while direct messages can tackle individual concerns or issues. While Slack can be distracting, wouldn’t it work to also have Slack hours?

  8. Abhijat Singhal says:

    Well said Cal. I completely agree and align on the fact that meetings have increase in virtual world as its very easy to set up meetings now. 2nd key takeaway is limiting the number of meetings per day to 3.

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