On this page, we're detailing how to optimize meetings in an all-remote environment.
"How do you do meetings right?" is a common question asked of all-remote companies like GitLab.
The truth is that much of the same advice applicable to in-person meetings apply to meetings within an all-remote company, with a few notable distinctions.
When you work in a global all-remote company, the usual assumptions about availability are opposite the norm. We have a growing team working in over 60 countries, with many time zones covered, which makes synchronous meetings impractical, burdensome, and inefficient. Anyone who has worked in a corporate environment has likely seen the sarcastic "I Survived Another Meeting That Should Have Been An Email" award. As an all-remote company, we do not look to a meeting by default, and we strive to make meetings optional.
In many companies, meetings are used as a mechanism to create consensus. As you'll read in the Leadership portion of GitLab's handbook, we are not a democratic or consensus driven company. People are encouraged to give their comments and opinions, but in the end one person decides the matter after they have listened to all the feedback.
This works because of our values, which leads GitLab to hire individuals who enjoy being a manager of one, a point detailed in our Efficiency value.
You should aim to record all meetings, particularly when key individuals aren't able to join live. This allows team members to catch up on what transpired, adding context to notes that were taken during the meeting. Learn more about recording in Zoom in the Tips and Tricks section of GitLab's Handbook.
Not all meetings are inherently bad. We encourage managers to establish regular 1:1 meetings with their team, for example. Many meetings can be avoided by understanding how to work well asynchronously, a topic we'll cover in more detail on a separate page. GitLab has a documented approach to efficient, productive 1:1s that we welcome other companies to implement, and contribute to if they have suggestions for improvement. Below is a video overview of executing 1:1 meetings.
If you determine that a meeting is needed to move a project forward, address a blocker, or resolve a miscommunication, be sure to have an agenda.
It's not rude to focus on documentation in a meeting. A surefire way to waste time in a meeting is to avoid writing anything down. Meetings within an all-remote company require documentation to be worthwhile.
Recurring meetings are oftentimes established as meaningful points along a given a journey. Don't hesitate to cancel them after their purpose has been served. Cancelling meetings isn't a slight to those on the invite list. In fact, ridding multiple calendars of a meeting should be celebrated and conjure a sense of liberation.
All-remote meetings are made simpler given that there's no jockeying for space in a boardroom, scrounging for huddle rooms, or wondering if a given group still needs the meeting room they've reserved — all very real conundrums in colocated environments.
In the above video interview between GitLab co-founder and CEO Sid Sijbrandij and NoHQ's Dominic Monn, the two discuss common challenges and solutions to building, sustaining, and scaling a thriving remote workplace.
They speak at length about meetings within a remote environment. In particular, Sid shares that remote workers should embrace the benefit of being free to take meetings with loved ones nearby.
Enjoy the benefits of your kids barging in on a meeting. That's the best distraction in the world. - GitLab co-founder and CEO Sid Sijbrandij
One's appearance, surroundings, and background can be the source of great stress and anxiety when preparing for a video call. At GitLab, we encourage team members to bring their whole selves to work.
In calls that have remote participants everyone should use have their own equipment (camera, headset, screen). Learn more in the Communication section of GitLab's Handbook.
A nontrivial amount of time is required to regain focus on a task following a distraction. While it is not always possible to schedule meetings such that they do not break up the flow of an ongoing project, it's important to begin and end meetings on time as to minimize disruption.
When scheduling a meeting we value people's time and prefer the "speedy meetings" setting in our Google Calendar. This gives us meetings of, for example, 25 or 50 minutes leaving some time to write notes, stretch, etc. before continuing to our next call or meeting. (This setting can be found under the calendar Settings menu at "default event duration"). Learn more in the Communication section of GitLab's Handbook.
Many organizations have attempted to improve the utility of meetings — usually as a workaround to actually doing less of them — by implementing a "screen-free" meeting mandate. At GitLab, we empower team members to be the manager of their attention.
Learn more in the Communication section of GitLab's Handbook
At GitLab, we have a dedicated Slack channel devoted to saying thanks. Kindness is embedded in our Collaboration value, and gratitude is an essential part of our culture. This reinforces what connects us as a geographically diverse team.
A great example of several GitLab's values being used to generate a creative outcome from a regularly scheduled meeting is detailed on the company blog: "How we turned a dull weekly all-hands into a podcast"
When working in an all-remote company, there is a strong tendancy to avoid traditional "offsites" that require travel from all participants. GitLab has experimented with all-remote "offsites" (AROs) as a method to provide some of the deeper shared understanding that results from such meetings without the heavy financial and personal toll of travel. These longer, structured meetings have had mixed results. Here's what we've learned so far:
All-remote offsites are cost-effective and enable team members to pivot back to life outside of work as soon as the meeting concludes. However, there is still great value in in-person interactions, and leaders should aim to include those opportunities when possible rather than shifting entirely to remote offsites.
When asked during an INSEAD case study interview (shown above) about an all-remote company's ability to bring people together in the same physical space for a meeting, GitLab co-founder and CEO Sid Sijbrandij provided the following reply.
For context, Sid joined the Zoom call from San Francisco, while the researchers joined from Singapore.
We can [bring people together in the same physical space], but we don't do it because it's very inefficient. Imagine the cost of this meeting if I had to fly to your location, or you to mine.
[Colocated companies] fall back on extremely inefficient things, like flying people halfway around the world for a four-hour meeting. GitLab doesn't fall into that trap.
We have meetings that are more efficient. I bet our meetings, via Zoom, are more efficient than meetings in a conference room. With live note-taking, up-front agendas, and our follow-up, GitLab meetings are more efficient.
Not only do we have more efficient meetings, we also do not have the time waste of flying people across the world.
I see multinational organizations where you're supposed to be in the office even if you're the only person in that location, just so they can check that you're working. That is a ridiculous waste of time.
So, no, [colocated companies] do not have an advantage. They don't have the benefit of knowing how to do remote right because it's not in their DNA.
Of course there are benefits to colocated meetings — it's easier to interrupt each other, it's easier to see what everyone around the room is thinking, you don't have wireless issues, it's easier to look each other in the eyes, it's easier to break bread before/after the meeting, it's easier to talk a walk or do something fun together.
We try to take advantage of them, though. We have GitLab Contribute where we all come together to go on excursions and have informal chats. As an executive group, we come together every quarter for 2.5 days for high-velocity meetings. Those are augmented with Google Docs, and we allow people to attend remotely if they cannot join in person.
There are benefits, but they aren't as big as people make them out to be.
The biggest thing is taking the initiative to interrupt each other, as that's harder in a remote setting. At GitLab, we solve that by making sure that questions are in a Google Doc in advance so it's clear who has a question and who to hand the conversation off to. — GitLab co-founder and CEO Sid Sijbrandij
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