Many remote teams are likely familiar with the challenge of excessively long (or drawn out) remote meetings that feel disengaging. Jan Ambroziewicz, Senior Product Manager at Codility, realised that his team needed to be more deliberate about how they run remote meetings, and so decided to reevaluate their meeting structure. By splitting meetings into two parts — one asynchronous, and one synchronous — his team could come more prepared to meetings, and use that time for engaging, and productive conversations. In this article, he shares how he did that.
Codility’s mission is to enable hiring teams to hire remote workers by providing the end-to-end tooling needed to streamline and manage hiring processes. When lockdowns were first implemented in March, Codility made the conscious decision as a company to go permanently remote.
Although Codility is distributed around the world, each team still had physical office spaces before COVID-19. Even though they had this prior experience with distributed teams, Jan says the shift was a big learning curve: “The company had to adopt new ways of doing things, and we had to learn a lot of new things.”
For Jan, one of these lessons was around how he thought about online meetings. As a senior product manager, a big part of Jan’s role is discussing product delivery and strategy with his dev team and other tech managers. When Jan’s team was still in the office together, a lot of the background information around product decisions was picked up in their day-to-day interactions. “Those spontaneous conversations were really useful for introducing, in bits and pieces, facts about the things you are going to build as a team.”
However, an unexpected challenge of this remote setup was losing spontaneous interactions with the team, which meant that they also lost the contextual information they used to pick up organically. “This meant that I had to be much more synthetic about it”, Jan explains.
“Since it wasn’t happening spontaneously anymore, I really needed to find a way to discuss and debate those things in a more structured manner online, without making meetings any longer or more disengaging.”
Below, Jan explains how he’s approached this challenge with his team in practice:
Keep meetings for things that need discussion; otherwise, send an email
Meetings are expensive in terms of the time they take. Unless they’re used productively, they can easily be draining and distracting. Jan wanted to reduce the number of meetings he has, and improve the quality of the ones he already does have, by being super critical of what actually needs a meeting.
“Sometimes, just having an agenda for a meeting isn’t enough, because you need to ensure that a meeting is used for what meetings do best — which is conversation. If you think there is value in doing that synchronously, then go for it; if not, figure out something else.”
Jan’s opinion is: If you want someone’s thoughts and opinions on something, schedule a meeting for it; if you aren’t expecting dialogue, and just want someone to acknowledge they’ve heard you, or get them on the same page as you about something, sending an email is more than enough.
PRO-TIP, for when you write an email: Written communication can easily slip through the cracks or become long-winded and indirect. To communicate more concisely through emails and Slack, for example, Jan writes his main point on a sticky note and keeps it in front of him. “If any sentence that you write doesn’t link directly to the point on your sticky… Remove it, forget about it, write it differently.” This helps him keep his written communications as concise and relevant as possible.
Do as much as you can asynchronously before your scheduled meeting
Without the spontaneous office interactions, Jan needs to do a lot more in remote meetings than he did in in-person meetings. He needs to give context for the problem, show his team data, explain the thinking behind the particular product decision, and then still engage his team to discuss their opinions and thoughts on it.
Instead of trying to do everything in a meeting, Jan’s team has a system of doing as much as they can asynchronously before a scheduled meeting. This keeps meetings for conversation, and helps Jan’s team stay as engaged as possible.
To do this, Jan splits his meetings into two parts, one asynchronous and then one synchronous:
The scaffold: “The first step”, he says, “would be creating a scaffold, a proposal, a document, or a sketch.” Jan tries to keep this down to one or two pages, to make it as easy to go through as possible. “And I send it to everyone, and let them look at it in their own time.” This part is done asynchronously, and gives Jan’s team as much or as little time as they need to position themselves in the context behind the meeting, and think of any questions they want answered.
The debate: “Then, we have a meeting where we go straight into conversation, as opposed to doing all of that prep during the same session.” In Jan’s experience, these discussions generally end up being far more useful than those where his team is engaging with this context for the first time.
“If you’ve done the preparation and you’ve shared it before with all the people involved, the conversation itself will be more efficient.”
Having these two approaches to remote meetings has kept Jan’s team engaged in product decisions, and has helped him communicate better as a product manager, despite the decreased amount of context his team has access to.