In the frantic scramble to transition to remote work that characterized the first several months of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was inevitable that we would see some problematic patterns begin to emerge. One of them has been a widespread tendency for managers and companies as a whole to micromanage. The micromanaging takes numerous forms, but one of the most common forms is “death by meeting,” or bombarding company staff with a relentless onslaught of remote meetings.
The sad irony is that while these meetings are intended to make sure people are doing their jobs, they actually make it harder for them to do their jobs, waste everyone’s time, and are costly. On the other hand, it’s understandable that managers—many of whom may were uncomfortable or reluctant to implement remote work even before the pandemic—would want reassurance that their employees are working and not cyberloafing or spending inordinate time on non-work actions during work hours. There are better ways to do this, however, than overloading employees with remote meetings.
Avoid “Death by Meeting” with Better Meetings
As a general rule, in my professional experience, many companies have far too many meetings. This was true before the pandemic and it’s even truer now. As an antidote to this tendency toward death-by-meeting, some industry commentators have been calling for regular and frequent one-on-one meetings as a better alternative to lengthy team meetings on Zoom that are not equally useful for everyone. I have been asked whether I agree with this or not, and my answer is both “Yes” and “No.” It depends on how these one-on-one meetings are executed, because without a deliberate plan and agenda, they can easily become yet another form of oppressive micromanaging. Indeed, many frustrated employees have been finding that to be the case, and it is not uncommon to hear stories about daily check-ins that don’t amount to more than giving managers a blow-by-blow account of everything employees are doing on a given day. They could be doing more if they weren’t spending so much time telling you what they are doing.
When it comes to remote work, the real issue is not about one-on-one meetings versus team meetings but about bad meetings versus better meetings. Whether we’re meeting in groups or one-on-one, if we’re going to meet at all, then all participants should benefit from it or somebody’s time is going to be wasted. Fortunately, there are things that can be done to better ensure that everyone benefits.
Use the RACI Matrix to Reduce Unnecessary Participation
To start with, most companies operating remotely right now probably would benefit from having fewer meetings in general, and when they do meet, having a higher level of purpose. Decide what type of meetings there will be (strategic, operational, or tactical), how often and when (monthly, weekly, or daily), and how long (shorter is usually better). If you’re to have a one-on-one meeting, communicate expectations clearly: What will I be expected to convey and what will my manager be conveying to me? Likewise, if it’s a team meeting, every participant should have an active purpose for being there because requiring participants to attend unnecessarily leads to them feeling like their time is being wasted. Toward this end, RACI charts, or responsibility assignment matrices (RACI stands for Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, and Informed), are tremendously helpful for making sure every participant’s role and function is clear.
Managing Up, as Well as Down
Meetings should not just be about leaders managing down; they also should be about employees managing up. That is, meetings should be opportunities for employees to communicate their own concerns and what they need to stay productive, with shared participation in decision-making. When your remote meetings are done this way, they can boost employee engagement. If not, then regardless of whether meetings are one-on-one or in groups, they can derail engagement.
One-on-one meetings or “check-ins” also should not be unwelcome intrusions into employees’ personal matters or emotional health. Yes, employees’ well-being affects their productivity, so prioritize it by all means. But right now, work is the most significant source of stress for many. Using meetings to simply let employees tell you what they need to do their jobs (i.e., managing up), and taking steps to ensure they have those things, will go a long way toward their well-being.
Managing Remotely Without Micromanaging
The key to managing remotely without micromanaging is communication, but what does that mean and what does it look like? How do you communicate with a remote workforce if you are having fewer or shorter meetings?
What most needs to be communicated when people are working remotely is what’s expected of them so they don’t have to struggle with role/task ambiguity on top of other complexities they’re navigating. Much of this can be done without excessive meetings and micromanaging through project management tools such as Asana or Trello, where managers and employees alike can keep track of what needs to be done, by whom, and by when. You can have short micro-meetings as needed to clarify details and make sure people have what they need to accomplish their tasks. You also can touch base upon reaching weekly or monthly milestones. But beyond that, step back, trust your people, and let them do their jobs.
Digital communication tools such as Slack and Microsoft Teams also can be used for questions and clarifications that don’t necessitate a Zoom meeting but would be quicker than e-mail. While Slack is virtually a given in tech-related fields, many companies and industries still don’t use it, and they should if they’re working remotely. When used judiciously, such tools are invaluable for communicating without micromanaging or “death by meeting.” That said, when they are misused, they can become barriers to productivity, which is why companies should set clear guidelines for how, and in what ways, they would like their staff to use these tools.
Conversely, don’t neglect the need for employees to have ways to interact socially with their colleagues. Workplace camaraderie is one of the key drivers of engagement. When employees are engaged, they will naturally be more productive. Since remote workers cannot interact in person, digital communication tools such as Slack can provide a “virtual hallway” of sorts where organic interactions can occur. Just ensure that opportunities for digital socializing—whether virtual hallways or virtual happy hours—are optional or else they can feel like meetings in their own right.
There is no question that the mass migration to remote work has posed challenges to effective communication and employee accountability, but more meetings and micromanaging will only compound the problem. Instead, a combination of more purposeful meeting design and skillful application of remote work technology (e.g., project management tools such as Asana and communication tools such as Slack) will yield better results in productivity and engagement without leading to employee frustration and burnout.