Rework

Meetings are actually horrible at conveying information to your team.

Show Notes

Meetings are the worst type of interruption. A one-hour meeting with five people is actually five hours of productivity lost. They're also horrible at conveying information. So, why do so many companies jump to meetings as the first option. Next time try writing something up, jumping on a a one-on-one call, or just skip the whole thing altogether!

Show Notes

What is Rework?

A podcast by 37signals about the better way to work and run your business. In Season 2, we're going through Rework (the book) chapter by chapter and talking with authors, Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, about what's changed in the world of business over the last eleven years since the book was published.

Shaun Hildner (00:01):
Welcome back to Rework, the podcast by 37signals about the better way to work and run your business. I'm Shaun Hildner, and as always, I am joined by 37signals co-founders and the authors of Rework. David Heinemeier Hansson, how are you today?

David Heinemeier Hansson (00:14):
Good, good, Shaun.

Shaun Hildner (00:16):
And Jason Fried, how are you?

Jason Fried (00:17):
Doing well, thank you. How are you?

Shaun Hildner (00:19):
Oh, can't complain. It's nice to be back on the air, and what a better way to come back from break than to talk about meetings. This is probably your most referenced take, and I don't really want to rehash all of Jason's brilliant TED Talk. I'll link to it in the show notes, if you want to go check it out. But to start off, can you sort of briefly lay out your overall problems with meetings?

Jason Fried (00:44):
There's a couple big issues. Number one is that they tend to convey a really small amount of information for the amount of time that's taken. That's number one. Number two, you don't have them by yourself. So you've got to have people in them, which means you've got to sync up schedules. You've got to pull people off their work. A call with two people isn't a meeting. It's just a call with two people, but a meeting is three or four or five. And then you end up having five people. Let's say you talk for an hour, and that's actually five hours.

Shaun Hildner (01:12):
Yeah. Go into that a little bit more. I think that's sort of the... Oh God, I hate to use thought technology. But the thing when I first heard your TED Talk was like, oh, I've never really wrapped my mind around it in that way.

Jason Fried (01:25):
Yeah. Basically the fundamental point is that a one-hour meeting with five people is not one hour. It's five hours, five-hour meeting, and that's expensive. And you've got to think about, is it worth spending five work hours on this one thing that we could probably write up, or two people could discuss in 15 minutes or something like that? Meetings aren't the worst thing in the world. They should just probably be the last thing. They're kind of plan B or plan C or plan D. You should try to figure out how to communicate without having those meetings. In most organizations, the meeting is the first default response, like "There's something to discuss. Let's have a meeting. It's getting to everyone's calendars, have a meeting, and I think that's what's toxic about them.

David Heinemeier Hansson (02:04):
I think one of the other key issues that has come up since the pandemic is the fact that meetings are synchronous. That is a very expensive way of coordinating things. If you have five people, not only are you spending five hours, if the meeting is an hour long, you also have to coordinate five people being in the same space, either physically or virtually at the same time, which is just a nightmare of juggling calendars, and it's a nightmare of puncturing daily schedules.

David Heinemeier Hansson (02:38):
Another thing we're really big on is this notion of long stretches of uninterrupted time. It's quite difficult to have those long stretches of uninterrupted time, if your day is punctured by meetings. And in fact, in some ways it gets even worse, if those meetings are exactly just an hour or so. You might think, "Oh, well, I have an hour meeting in the morning and I have one in the afternoon. That's just two hours out of eight hours. What's the big deal?" Well, the big deal is that creative endeavors, in general, don't yield well to those kinds of interruptions.

David Heinemeier Hansson (03:10):
If you are 45 minutes out from a meeting, there's a good chance you'll look at that time as, "Eh, you know what? I'm not going to dive into a big, hairy property here. I'm just going to dive into my emails or I'm going to dive into something else that was not really the thing that was going to move the ball forward." So meetings just puncture and explode these calendars we have, and it prevents us, if you have too many of them, from having these long stretches of uninterrupted time.

David Heinemeier Hansson (03:37):
In addition, now that so much of the world has gone remote, which is actually something you'd think we'd just be thrilled about, and in some ways there are positive factors to it, but there are also negative factors, especially when it comes to meetings. It's one thing to have a meeting with five people when you're actually sitting in person and you get some sort of social electricity out of it that actually energizes people. I have never heard of anyone becoming energized by spending hours on end on Zoom. In fact, I've heard repeatedly exactly the opposite that Zoom fatigue hits about a hundred percent of the population. It is even more infectious than the disease that gave rise to all that is in itself.

David Heinemeier Hansson (04:24):
And that's just a new form of strategy, especially for companies that were used to doing a bunch of meetings, thought it was actually good. Maybe those companies were run by a bunch of extroverts who really liked these things. And then they translated that meeting schedule into Zoom, and all of a sudden, they're so surprised that work sucks. Like, what's not working here? Well, Zoom is a very poor replacement for the electricity of in-person social interaction. It's a quite reasonable replacement for sort of just conveying information or settling on something, but it doesn't provide this other thing that I think that a lot of people who actually didn't mind meeting so much in the "real world" are looking for. So I think those are two additional reasons 2020 forward that has made this chapter Meetings are Toxic even more pertinent.

Shaun Hildner (05:26):
I think they're the same types of people, too, that are trying to recreate the in-person meeting on Zoom that are forcing people to keep your camera on and don't blur your background and try to make it as meeting as possible, which I think is also very toxic.

David Heinemeier Hansson (05:42):
It is, but I also understand the sentiment, right? If you actually were the kind of person who really just did like meetings, not because they were actually productive, but because-

Shaun Hildner (05:52):
You get to hang out.

David Heinemeier Hansson (05:52):
... they gave you something else. You're desperately trying to recreate that something. The promise of online, the promise of something like Zoom or other video chat things is that it does just that. And it kind of looks like it does just that. When you start doing, it's sort of an insidious, almost silent killer when you've just been on a Zoom call for an hour and you go like, "Why is the lifeblood just getting sucked out me at 10 times the pace that would happen in an actual meeting. What is going on?" It is this thing that looks like the real thing. It sort of smells like the real thing, but it... Actually, doesn't smell like the real thing. Maybe this is part of it, right? You can't actually smell other people on Zoom, which sounds like a feature, but who the hell knows where these creatures have evolved over 200,000 years. Maybe smell is one of those key things that provide the electricity of the social connection, and we don't fully understand it.

David Heinemeier Hansson (06:46):
But what we do understand is that Zoom fatigue is very real. It is a direct consequence of meeting culture, and you don't have to do remote that way. There's other ways to do remote. There's other ways to do remote than to reach for the meeting first. You can go asynchronous. This is what we talk about in Rework repeatedly. You can go writing first instead of meeting first, and then you can leave the meeting to become the thing that breaks a stalemate. This is what I really like to use meetings for in general. You write something up asynchronous, don't have to have the coordination. You go back and forth a few times. When you sense the temperature of that exchange heating up or that we're not really getting to a conclusion, we're not getting closer to each other, we're getting further away from each other, that's the time where you just say, "Okay, enough, we're not going to comment back and forth our way out of this one. Let's do a meeting."

Jason Fried (07:40):
And in fact, we don't even call it a meeting. We call it a call, which is whatever, but still there is something a little bit different. And frankly, I've been using the phone more than video. I don't like video for talking to somebody. There's no need to do that really. So like Brian, who's on product strategy, whenever we catch up, we catch up on the phone. We almost never catch up on Zoom. Just, let's just talk. Talking is different actually than meeting where it's physical. You've got a camera on you. A lot of people don't even like just being on camera. So you get camera staring at you. You've got a green light staring at you. It's really uncomfortable. It's really uncomfortable.

Jason Fried (08:18):
And people are looking at themselves all the time, which is something you kind of can't help doing. And then you get self-conscious. In a meeting, you can't see yourself. You can't see your head. You can't see your face in a real meeting, physically. On zoom, you're seeing yourself. And then you're on stage.

Shaun Hildner (08:32):
I've never once cared how I look in a conference room.

Jason Fried (08:36):
Yeah. So it's just the whole thing's awkward and uncomfortable and unnecessary most of the time.

Shaun Hildner (08:40):
Yeah.

David Heinemeier Hansson (08:40):
So let me throw in a life hack here, a meeting hack-

Shaun Hildner (08:44):
Oh, I can't wait.

David Heinemeier Hansson (08:45):
... which is the one I've been running this entire "meeting" or conversation, which we actually run over a video chat platform. I put another window in front of my Zoom window all the time. I turn Zoom calls into audio calls because I actually don't want to look at people like this. I think Jason is on exactly the right thing here.

David Heinemeier Hansson (09:06):
Do you know what? I recall being perfectly fine having very long phone calls growing up prior to messaging, prior to video calls, all these other things, and they were not fatiguing in the same way. There was something uniquely fatiguing about this combination of the audio plus the video feed that both does not exist in real-life meetings, although I also find those fatiguing at some point, but in a different way. And it's also not true about audio only. There's really something uniquely terrible about the Zoom style way of seeing each other.

David Heinemeier Hansson (09:41):
But you can literally opt out of that. No one will know. You just drag another window in front of browsers. I've done right now. I have the Kindle app, which is, by the way, one of the worst apps that's ever been [inaudible 00:09:55]. It's an absolutely terrible app, but it blocks other windows just fine. And I have Meetings are Toxic, the chapter we're talking about, right in front of me instead of your lovely faces.

Shaun Hildner (10:05):
Oh, perfect. Well, thanks.

David Heinemeier Hansson (10:09):
So no need to feel self-conscious about how you look because I can't see you anyway.

Jason Fried (10:13):
I don't mean to hijack the call about phone calls, but no, no, no. There's something really nice to me about moving and talking. So I like to walk and talk. I hate sitting still and talking actually. I can't think as clearly. And so what's nice about the phone is you can actually literally go on walk and talk. You can't do that on camera really. I mean, you could hold it in front of you, but that's totally weird. So I think there's a real advantage to moving your body, at least for me and just moving through space and thinking that's stuck, that you can't do on camera. And the more people are on camera, the more stationary you are, which is also just kind of really uncomfortable.

Shaun Hildner (10:51):
Yeah.

David Heinemeier Hansson (10:51):
It's funny because that point, Jason, I just finished reading Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport, and he brings up this thing about the walking and the talking, that this has a long history. Lincoln apparently was famous for all his momentous talks with other politicians. It was a walk-and-talk engagement. Steve jobs basically only held meetings in that way. I think there really is something to this physicality of doing it. And I do find that that replacement is surprisingly good for the, okay, we're literally walking next to each other and talking. The walking and being on the phone is pretty close, far, far closer than this unnatural Zoom replacement for being in person.

Jason Fried (11:35):
Yeah.

Shaun Hildner (11:36):
Well, there are some things like showing work that you do need to at least be on camera for, or share your screen. And 37signals does have some meetings. So what types of meetings do we have around here? I know we don't have the typical Monday standup or something like that, but might be the most egregious of these offenders.

Jason Fried (11:56):
Yeah. I mean, for example, when I review work with a designer, we do it on Zoom because we look at the work together, and that's sort of the only way to really look at the work together, but I don't ever consider that a meeting. It's just two of us talking about the work and looking at the work. It's just, that's not a meeting.

Jason Fried (12:11):
We do have some standing team calls. So the design team or programmer team or other teams might get together once a week and just kind of have a more of a social hour together essentially and talk about some stuff, look at some work sometimes, whatever. So we do have those, and then we do an all hands once every six to eight weeks, which is a little bit more of a Q&A. Here's what's kind of going on. Here's what we're planning on working on over the next six weeks. Yeah. Catch up. That's kind of it besides the team calls and the all hands.

Jason Fried (12:44):
Some other teams do some more frequent calls. There's of course some people that do one-on-ones but, again, I don't really consider one-on-one necessarily meeting, but it is something that has to fit on your schedule if you're doing that. So I tend not to do those. I don't know. That's kind of all I can recall. David, anything else?

David Heinemeier Hansson (12:59):
I think it's key, Shaun, when you say catch up, we sort of we do that, but it's not for the purpose of conveying information because as Jason started out saying, the meeting is actually one of the worst ways possible to convey information, unless the information is in motion or something else where it's not about facts or presentations of things to look at. If what you're conveying is a upbeat spirit, a shared celebration, for example, as we often do with the calls we do after a cycle, we're like, "Hey, we just did a bunch of great work over the past six weeks. Let's celebrate that together. Let's get excited about the next batch of work that we are doing together." Those things, those can't be more difficult to convey in text, and I think having a call can be a reasonable way of doing it, if it's really dispersed out. If it's essentially like a little bit of spice you add on, not too much, just a pinch, that's good.

David Heinemeier Hansson (14:00):
And then as I mentioned earlier, too, the other reform there is to break a stalemate, to break out of something that has escalated into something where we don't feel like we're making progress together on text, but the information-conveying meeting in the strictest sense of like here I am, reading aloud of something that everyone needs to know, those are absolutely just terrible.

Shaun Hildner (14:22):
Right. Do you have any... Tips isn't the right way, but I guess how do you keep these meetings, when you do have to have them, productive? Is there a certain way we schedule? Or, I mean, I know you've mentioned setting a timer and you have to cut off at a timer. Have you ever like actually done that?

David Heinemeier Hansson (14:39):
I think actually, do you know what, we fall into the same traps as everyone else, which is exactly why we wrote this chapter, is because when we set up a "real meeting", one that's actually scheduled and so on, it totally gets a time slot. It gets a time... Half an hour, or it's an hour. And you know what, it'll just fill that half an hour. It'll fill that hour.

David Heinemeier Hansson (14:58):
Now to some extent, you could say that's a form of time boxing and that kind of works, but those time boxes are pretty crude. It's quite rare that we are even able to distill things down to just a five-minute call, because it doesn't work like that versus, and this is really the crucial distinction, when you collaborate asynchronously in writing, oh, there's a million decisions all the time that are taken and communicated in five minutes or seven minutes or six minutes, 49 seconds because that's how long it takes to write that damn comment that you're putting in there or that word you're putting in, and that's fine, and you move on.

David Heinemeier Hansson (15:36):
And I think that is why we are such a big fan of the asynchronous form, not the chat form. This is where a little bit of a distinction comes in. Chat has a whole host of other problems. I don't even think we actually covered the terribleness of chat in Rework, in part perhaps because we hadn't lived that universe for long enough. I think Campfire was only...

Shaun Hildner (15:59):
This is pretty slack.

David Heinemeier Hansson (15:59):
... five years old or something at that point. And we were considerably smaller company. And then now we've been in that world for much longer, and we've discovered all the ways that chat absolutely sucked, too, in a variety of ways. What I'm talking about here is sort of the bread butter of Basecamp, which is what we like to call sort of the Perma. It's a message. It's a to do. It's a card. It's a document that's been uploaded. It's something else like that that forms the outline of a discussion. And then it's a common threat below.

David Heinemeier Hansson (16:33):
And that common threat is both longer than chat messages, right, because it's not line by line staccato thinking. You actually get to compose yourself in full paragraphs and all these other good things for thinking, but they are very asynchronous. And you look at a bunch of things. I might be, at any one time, involved in 10, 15 different discussions at the same time that I'll put in my two cents.

David Heinemeier Hansson (16:57):
And then do you know what, when someone else responds, that's when maybe I'll look at it again at some point after that. It allows you sort of a form of parallel processing. If you think of it in modern computers, one of the huge steps we've taken forward in performance has been this idea that a CPU now has multiple cores. It can do many things at the same time, and those things don't have to wait for each other. I kind of feel like that's what working in Basecamp is like. It's like upgrading your capacity to collaborate and make decisions to multicore setups.

David Heinemeier Hansson (17:30):
If you are a meetings-first organization, you're running a single-core processor. And it doesn't matter how smart you are, how many gigahertz your brain can process, you can just do that one thing at a time. So while you're sitting in your one-hour meeting or two-hour meeting or three-hour meeting, God forbid, doing the one thing, do you know what, I can spend that time doing 23 things, not because it's sort of interlacing in this multitasking way, but because each core runs sort of the small job. Hey, let's make a decision in this thing. We move on. You go do your thing. I go do my thing, and my thing is to check in on a few other things too.

David Heinemeier Hansson (18:08):
So it is just such a powerful, and even though we've harped upon this point, I think for, I mean, 10 years plus, it still feels like the biggest secret out there. It feels like we use Basecamp in this way, and a lot of other companies, they still run on this ancient operating system of meetings first, and you just look at that and you go like, oh man, I pitted the fool who still have to cook with a stone ax, however you do that.

Shaun Hildner (18:38):
That's like the biggest question I get from friends. How do I talk to my boss about stopping this Monday standup? And I think it's just, "Well, that's the way we do things."

David Heinemeier Hansson (18:50):
Inertia is a... Do we bleep on this show? Can I say inertia is a bitch?

Shaun Hildner (18:55):
Yeah, of course, you can say that.

David Heinemeier Hansson (18:58):
I think the one thing that we saw with the pandemic was, right, Jason and I have literally been talking about remote for the entire existence of this company, our entire collaboration together, 20, what is it, 21 years at this point, a book almost 10 years ago, harping upon the same point. Right? I wouldn't say nothing happened. A few things happened for a few companies. Then the pandemic hits and totally blast inertia to space, and all of a sudden, something happens, right? Something new comes in. So I think that's part of it. We've likened this in other ways to sort of you just have to let the... And this is harsh and I mean it about organizations, not people, but you just got to let the dinosaurs die.

Shaun Hildner (19:41):
Yeah.

David Heinemeier Hansson (19:41):
It literally is a generational thing to some extent, to move past this meetings-first kind of thing. The next generation, that's not what they're going to reach for first. Now, maybe we will over-correct horrendously in the other direction. Right? The joke of Gen Z people basically getting panic attacks if the phone rings and they're like, "What is going on? Did someone die?" Because everything is running on text, is hopefully not a heart bringer of what's to come, but that some of it is that right. New companies being started today, post-pandemic, oh, remote is absolutely the default. Writing is absolutely the default. Zoom fatigue is something they all live through and hopefully vow to not repeat. So we will get another type of company, but it's got to be the seedlings that put it through. I mean, you see the struggles that Apple and other companies are having, right? They have a long extent, at least multi-decade culture with people who were versed and brought up under a different regime. Those people do not change easy, and they will continue to kick and scream until it goes back to the old way.

Shaun Hildner (20:44):
Yeah. It's kind of similar to, "I spent too much money on this new office. So you have to come in."

David Heinemeier Hansson (20:49):
Is that also an Apple reference to the UFO?

Shaun Hildner (20:52):
Yeah.

David Heinemeier Hansson (20:52):
Was that $5 billion? Was that's the most expensive office actually in the history of offices?

Shaun Hildner (20:57):
I can't think of another one.

Jason Fried (20:58):
It's got to be.

David Heinemeier Hansson (20:59):
It probably... Yeah. It's got to be. Anyway.

Shaun Hildner (21:01):
All right. Well, I think that's a great place to stop as we rag on Apple, once again, on Rework.

David Heinemeier Hansson (21:06):
Free Fortnite.

Shaun Hildner (21:10):
You want to open the listener mailbag for a second?

Jason Fried (21:13):
Sure.

Shaun Hildner (21:14):
All right. This time we have a question from Chris.

Chris (21:18):
Hello, Jason, David and Shaun. I've noticed you've been gradually adding back office-type roles at 37signals. And I'm curious if shape of principles, like six-week cycles or hill charts, have influenced your back office functions.

Jason Fried (21:31):
Yeah. He's Shaun. He asked you too. You want to answer that one?

Shaun Hildner (21:35):
Yeah. It's kind of funny. I actually, because I am on a basically one-week cycle, I don't really get to experience most of the shape up system, I suppose. So I am little out of the loop there.

Jason Fried (21:48):
Yeah. I mean, most of the teams at the company try to run on six-week cycles, including finance, including what we're calling sort of commercial, which is marketing and some other things. Not everybody runs it the same way, but we all try to post what are called heartbeats and kickoffs every six weeks explaining roughly what happened over the past six weeks, what's going to happen over the next six weeks. Things are supposed to be project-based to a certain degree, like this is what we're expecting to get done over the next six weeks. It's not a continuation necessarily of something we did last six weeks. It's a new thing, not always, but most of the time.

Jason Fried (22:21):
Some teams though don't really work that way. Ops, for example, is more of a reactive work kind of team where things come up and you just don't know. They have some projects though that are happening and are pre-announced and are on a set schedule to some degree and time-boxed, but other things just kind of come up. So I would say product is the primary place. And then it has expanded beyond that, but it's not quite as rigid in other places.

Jason Fried (22:49):
I do think though that the six-week cadence of kickoffs and heartbeats... Just to reiterate, a heartbeat is sort of a summary of what happened over the last six weeks, all the work that was completed, and a kickoff is what's planned on being worked on over the next six weeks. Those are really valuable things. Even if there's some things that go for a few cycles, just because of the nature of the work, it's still just nice to know where things are and where we expect them to be over the next six.

Shaun Hildner (23:14):
Yeah. It's a good way to replace a meeting.

Jason Fried (23:17):
Well, it actually is a good example of that, where the kickoffs and the heartbeats do. They summarize, in significant detail, lots of things that don't need to be discussed at the moment, but can wait for six weeks to be summarized all in one post, which then you can read on your own schedule or ignore if you want to. It's here. The information's here. If you're curious, you can read it. If not, it's fine too, but you can read it in one swallow basically, and then you're done. You don't have to sit through anything.

David Heinemeier Hansson (23:46):
It's kind of like a reader's digest version of the productivity of the last six weeks, which is one of those points, I think, we are increasingly losing this idea to summarize sort of in a brief manner. You don't need to follow along what everyone else does all the time. Now, you actually can, to some extent, in Basecamp, but we encourage people not to. We've done a lot of work to actually cut down on the amount of information you're exposed to.

David Heinemeier Hansson (24:15):
And then the alternative or the replacement here is, you know what, once every six weeks, you'll know. You'll get the highlights. You don't need the play by play. You don't need all the details. You just need a one sheet of paper, which is usually what the kickoff or heartbeat is. It's about a page, plus, minus, and you can read that in, what, five minutes, and you can catch up on six weeks worth of stuff that happened. Well, how long would it had taken to pay minute attention to all those details along the way? How much interruption would've it cost? How much attention slip would you have suffered? Boom. Once every six weeks, you're up to date.

Shaun Hildner (24:53):
Yeah. So I mean shape up, I guess, correct me if I'm wrong, was written from the standpoint of, this is what we use for product design. Is that right?

Jason Fried (25:01):
Yes. Yes.

Shaun Hildner (25:02):
But it is a viable way to work for a lot of the back office roles.

Jason Fried (25:08):
I think any project-based work, which is what product development ultimately is, these sort of chunks of work that need to happen within a certain period of time, are roughly pre-defined upfront, but with a lot of room to move, to figure out how to get it done. Anything that fits into that pattern, and most projects do, regardless of whether or not they're marketing projects or some sort of infrastructure upgrade or something like that, these things can fit in that system. And then this includes accounting stuff like, hey, we're going to switch from this tax platform to this tax platform or this whatever to whatever, whatever these things might be. They're projects. They've got tasks. They've got people involved. They've got open questions that haven't been answered yet. They've got a rough shape. You have a pretty good sense of what needs to happen and what done's going to look like. Anything in most types of work fall into that pattern. So I think it's really good.

Shaun Hildner (26:05):
Well, cool. Thank you, Chris, for calling in. If you have any questions for Jason or David, you can give us a call at 708-628-7850, or better yet, you can record a voice memo on your phone an email it to hello@rework.fm.

Shaun Hildner (26:24):
Next week, we're going to be talking about when to just say, "Eh, this is good enough, and sometimes good enough is fine," but for now, I want to say thank you to Jason Fried.

Jason Fried (26:35):
Thanks, Shaun.

Shaun Hildner (26:36):
And thank you for joining me, David Heinemeier Hansson.

David Heinemeier Hansson (26:38):
Yep.

Shaun Hildner (26:39):
We'll see you next week.

Shaun Hildner (26:49):
Rework is a production of 37signals. Our theme music is by Clipart. We're on the web at rework.fm where you can find show notes and transcripts for this and every episode of rework. We're also on Twitter, @reworkpodcast. If you're following along in the book, next time, we'll be discussing the chapter "Good Enough is Fine." And if you like the show, I'd really appreciate it if you would leave us of a review on Apple Podcast, Spotify, Overcast, or wherever you're listening to this.