The REWORK podcast

A podcast about a better way to work and run your business. We bring you stories and unconventional wisdom from Basecamp’s co-founders and other business owners.

EPISODE 0014

Meetings Are Toxic

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You’ll laugh; you’ll cry; you’ll gnash your teeth in recognition as you hear the stories of horrible meetings we collected for this episode. Meetings are one of the worst kinds of workplace interruptions. They’re held too frequently, run too long, and involve more people than necessary. Also in this episode: A Basecamp programmer gives advice on rethinking the culture of meetings and the story of one very cringeworthy meeting with a surprising outcome.

We had more listener-submitted meeting stories than we could feature in the episode, so here are a couple bonus ones!

No Work Done

I had an intense 12-hour meeting over two consecutive days. We were writing, correcting and estimating stories for a three-month project. Devs were in the room with managers, scrum master and biz owners.

So at the end of the second day, we finished the last story and we were supposed to groom and task it out next day (a third meeting day, yay). But our manager talked with us the next day and told us that some biz owners were mad about some unclear criteria in the stories, so he said that the (managers and biz) will regroup and this time “correctly rewrite all stories” and that we will have another 12-hour meeting next week.

That’s the story of how I had 24 hours of meetings in two weeks and NO WORK DONE (we couldn’t start working in the project until we had the second 12-hour meeting).

Quelle Horreur

I recently worked as a product manager for an Austrian company that was owned by a big French group. We were an IT service provider for two products, and in this meeting we were supposed to discuss payment providers for our new e-commerce offer.

The office and project language was English. My boss spoke English, French and German. I spoke English and German. Our French colleagues spoke French and English (with difficulties).

The meeting was a jour fixe (recurring) video conference scheduled for one hour, done over a big screen in HD. On our side, it was my boss and me. On their side, it was three project and product managers joined by a “payment expert” and an “SEO expert.” So that was seven people. Five minutes before the meeting, our CFO informed us that he would be joining shortly just to clarify “some budget things” with the department lead. So in total, we had nine people in the meeting: six on their side and three on ours. After the introduction round in English, the CFO and the department lead started to discuss budget details in French and that lasted for 40 minutes. Nine people in the meeting, two people talking to each other, and one of the nine (me) doesn’t understand a word that was said. Once they were done, they both left the meeting, so the rest of us had 20 minutes to discuss what we wanted to discuss.

I’ve read Rework and already had formed my opinion about Jour Fixes and working in meetings. I also complained often and openly about meetings I was invited to but had nothing to say and could have just read the minutes afterward. But this one was a special kind of meeting. It was almost like it was directed by Monty Python. I no longer work there :)


The Full Transcript:

Ellen: [00:00:00] Hello, this is Ellen Watson from Appleton, Wisconsin. I was a student representative to a search committee that was looking to fill an open faculty position in the philosophy department. So, the meeting was to decide on the candidate we wanted to offer the position to. It actually went round and round, to my recollection, with people kind of comparing them to each other, and talking about strengths but also talking about potential conflict or lack of fit.

[00:00:27] At about the 90-minute point, the department head suggested that we take a straw poll to see how far apart we were on agreement. When one name was read out, every hand went up. There weren’t any abstentions. There were no votes for any other candidates and we all realized that the department had had unanimous support for this candidate since the beginning of the meeting.

[00:00:50] Why did we just spend 90 minutes talking hypothetically about a decision we didn’t even have to make?

Dan: [00:00:56] Hi guys, this is Dan. I run a software company in Oklahoma. One time, after a particular client, we had to have a meeting about a meeting. There was a meeting that was going to happen, and in order to prepare for all of the politics and landmines and issues with that meeting, we had to call a meeting to discuss how we would proceed with the actual meeting, which would occur later. It was like being in the Twilight Zone. That’s not the way to run a business. It was terrible. You guys have a great day.

[00:01:28] Broken By Design by Clip Art plays.

Wailin: [00:01:30] Welcome to Rework, a podcast by Basecamp about the better way to work and run your business. I’m Wailin Wong.

Shaun: [00:01:36] And I’m Shaun Hildner. Today we’re talking about one of Basecamp’s biggest bugaboos: meetings. It’s hard to overstate how much people around here dislike meetings.

Wailin: [00:01:47] This aversion to meetings ties into what we talked about on our previous episode, which is interruptions in the workplace. I think for a lot of people, regular meetings are a major unwanted interruption. You have to stop what you’re doing, go to a meeting, that might not even be that productive, and then it takes a while to settle back into focused work mode.

Shaun: [00:02:05] We’re going to start with another meeting horror story, this time from one of our colleagues here at Basecamp, and not wanting to burn any bridges, she’s asked to remain anonymous, so we’re going to do this as a dramatic reading.

Wailin: [00:02:16] Then we talked to Dan Kim, a programmer at Basecamp about the problems with meetings and how work can be better if you reclaim that time.

Shaun: [00:02:25] And, finally, the story of one exceptionally bad meeting that actually led to the creation of a brand-new company.

Wailin: [00:02:38] My meeting horror stories belong to a certain kind of company. The remote company that doesn’t trust its remote workers. Now that I’m at Basecamp, these stories seem even more absurd because they’re so far from my reality now. My first experience with remote meeting horror was while I was working for a company building an app. There were these employees all over the world, including eastern Europe and once a month, everyone had to flex their hours to the CEO’s Pacific time zone, so we could all have an eight-hour Skype meeting. That’s correct. An. Eight. Hour. Skype meeting.

[00:03:16] When I was first told about this after being hired, I thought it was a joke or a mistake in my calendar. My coworker said, oh yeah, make sure you have like a bag of nuts and a big bottle of water on your desk. Who wouldn’t think he was joking. I don’t know if it makes it better or worse that the meeting was audio-only. At least I could mute myself and eat or walk around my house to stretch my legs since I wasn’t being seen. But the consolation for that was essentially an eight-hour phone call.

[00:03:45] During those eight hours, we had one 15-minute break, and one 10-minute break. So, 25 minutes of breaks in eight hours. Imagining the bodily functions that need to happen in eight hours and how many of us had to do those while muting our computers and bringing them into or near the bathroom is too upsetting for words.

[00:04:06] If these eight-hour meetings had been productive or helped our communication or had any bearing whatsoever on the functions of our daily jobs, I would have understood the need for them, a little more. But we’d spend those eight hours listening to the CEO read Google Docs aloud to us that we were all looking at on our own screens.

[00:04:25] An eight-hour corporate bedtime story nightmare.

[00:04:34] My second and hopefully last experience with remote meetings going bad was at a SaaS company that did really admirable and interesting work but the CEO, again, had such trust issues with having a remote workforce that demanding fruitless meetings became a regular interruption to our work.

[00:04:52] Again, this CEO demanded we all flex to their hours. My team had five people in the Pacific time zone and the CEO was in Eastern. She wanted to start her day with a stand-up meeting for 15 minutes. That meant five of us started our workdays at 6 am. Many of my coworkers had to call in while doing things like getting their kids ready for school, bath-time, or even while nursing. We had to add our agendas to a Google Doc before the meeting each morning, so at like, 5:30 am, every day, I’d be trying to wake up and get ready to face the CEO and come up with a coherent list of my day’s work.

[00:05:30] What was supposed to be a 15-minute stand-up went on for over an hour. Every single day. Again, it was just people reading their lists out loud to each other from a Google Doc we were all looking at. No revelations or progress or new ideas came from these meetings. We all just read aloud to each other. Oftentimes the CEO demanded we turn on our video so she could see us, at 6 am.

[00:05:56] Again, some people were nursing or bathing their children. In retrospect, both of these scenarios were CEOs trying to run remote companies who felt anxious not seeing what their employees were doing every second of the day. So, they tried to wield power or control by demanding these absurd meetings. What boggles my mind is how they couldn’t see how inefficient these meetings were. And, in fact, how much they ate up time to actually be productive. I still haven’t opened Skype since that first story. Just the sound of the Skype ring tone makes me shudder.

[00:06:36] Skype ring tone plays.

[00:06:42] Broken By Design by Clip Art plays.

Wailin: [00:06:44] Next, we’re going to hear from Dan Kim, a programmer on Basecamp’s Android team, who wrote a piece for the company blog in December about why recurring meetings are terrible. It stirred up some debate, so we thought we’d bring in Dan to lay out the case against meetings and give some advice about how to have fewer of them.

Dan: [00:07:05] My name’s Dan Kim, and I’m a programmer here at Basecamp.

Wailin: [00:07:07] You wrote a blog post not too long ago about why recurring meetings are the worst and we should not have them.

Dan: [00:07:14] Yes.

Wailin: [00:07:14] Was there anything in particular that inspired you to write that?

Dan: [00:07:16] I forget exactly what triggered me. I think it was a tweet or I saw something on YouTube or something. But somebody had mentioned how they have this recurring standing meeting. And I think they’d said something like, they have it every Friday at 3 pm, which blew my mind. I couldn’t think of anything that would suck worse than having a meeting on a Friday at 3 pm when you’re trying to wind down. That got me thinking about how in my career prior to coming to Basecamp, how I had been subjected to many, many meetings, whether they be recurring or not. And it just got me thinking about how good our work could be and how good our work lives can be if you don’t have them constantly interrupted by meetings.

Wailin: [00:07:53] What were the problems with recurring meetings or meetings in general that you remember from your old jobs?

Dan: [00:07:59] The thing that bothers me the most about recurring meetings is that you’re basically forcing people to meet even if there’s nothing to talk about. And you’re sort of saying that I can predict the future and I know that every day, we’re going to have something important to talk about, or every week, or every month, or whatever that recurrence might be. So, when a more important or actually important meeting needs to happen, they look at that block of time on someone’s calendar and it’s already filled up. And so now they have to move that meeting to a different time that’s probably less convenient. Late in the day, early in the morning or something like that. And it’s sort of this vicious cycle of meetings where people have created all these recurring meetings, and you look at somebody’s calendar and it’s just completely blocked with recurring meetings. It’s like, well, here’s my weekly status meeting for this. And here’s my daily stand-up for this. That was the thing that bothered me the most, was this idea that you can block someone’s time and that yours is the most important and that it has to happen at the exact same time every week.

Wailin: [00:08:51] And I always thought the whole point of the stand-up meeting was to address this issue. Like, they’re supposed to be so fast that you stand up, right? So it prevents people from sitting for hours and hours or many minutes, or whatever. And, they’re supposed to be very efficient. Has that not been the case in your experience?

Dan: [00:09:08] You know, it really depends on how you’re running your project. But, let’s say you use a stand-up for your entire team. So, let’s say that your team was five, six people and that’s a fairly small team. But, if you had five or six people on your team and you all stood and took a minute or two to tell everybody what was going on, that’s still five minutes probably that everybody didn’t need to hear all of that stuff. I mean, the idea is that well, other people can jump in and help you with that stuff. The reality is that person 1 listening to person 5 talk is probably going to be very little crossover between what they’re doing.

[00:09:39] I get the concept of it, but there’s probably a much better, asynchronous way to do it where somebody could just write something up and post it and then everybody can kind of discuss that together as well. But, this idea that like, at 9 o’clock every morning we have to get together to talk about it for five or ten minutes? I mean, it’s such an interruption. The way that programmers and designers and anybody in a creative field work, is you need a long, uninterrupted stretch of time to get into stuff. So, if you have a stand-up at 9 o’clock every morning, let’s say, and you start your workday at 8:30. Well, guess what? You’re not going to get super far in your work.

Wailin: [00:10:10] Yeah, so you’re on the Android team here at Basecamp, and within your team, how do you communicate the things that in a different company with more meetings would be communicated via meetings?

Dan: [00:10:24] We have maybe one or two calls a week and that’s only if something comes up where we’re like, hey let’s get face-to-face, and I say face-to-face, I mean a Google Hangout or Skype call. And that we need to hash something out quickly because we can’t really figure it out. Otherwise, we’ll basically use, we’ll write up to-dos or messages or just talk in chat and figure out what we need to figure out. But for the most part, the stuff that we need to talk about is rapidly iterating on a design or something like that, so two of us will hop on. It’s usually like our designer, Jamie and then one of us, me or Jay on the programming side. And we’ll just be the ones involved in it.

[00:10:56] And even that, it’s maybe 15-20 minutes at the most. It’s when it’s convenient for both of those people. And then if those are two people working on it, it’s just those two people. I don’t join just for the hell of it. Like, if they’ve got it, they’re working on it. I don’t need to be a third party just to be in this meeting, right?

Wailin: [00:11:12] Reading the responses to not just your blog post on Signal v. Noise, but the one that Jason Fried wrote up in, I think it was back in 2016, actually, that you referenced where he also posted—reposted some of his thoughts about meetings. It’s interesting the pushback you get from people who are very vigorously defending meetings. There’s this sense of, you can’t just ban all meetings, that wouldn’t work at my company at all. But what I’m hearing you say is that there are ways to have meetings to keep them sane and to draw some boundaries around them so they’re not so disruptive. Like, you mentioned only calling them when you really need to, keeping them really small, and keeping them short.

Dan: [00:11:59] Yep. On occasion, we have been known to go really, really long. So, Jay and I, a couple weeks ago, had a four-hour meeting, which is insane. I don’t know that we’ve ever had a four-hour meeting ever in the three years that we’ve worked together.

Wailin: [00:12:09] Did you plan for it to be a four-hour meeting?

Dan: [00:12:11] Nope! Didn’t plan for it. We just said, hey after lunch let’s meet. Let’s talk over these two things. We have a couple major items for 2018 we want to talk about that are technical. We just jumped in a room when we were both ready when we got our coffee and everything. And it just naturally took four hours. And by that I mean that for the entire four hours, both of us were engaged in the conversation. Jamie, our designer, wasn’t in there because it wasn’t really a design discussion, it was a purely technical discussion. He didn’t need to be there. We didn’t need a third person just zoning out in the room. And so, for the entire four-hour meeting, we were engaged in a technical conversation. None of us were like checking email or looking out the email, or whatever. We were actually talking through stuff, working through code. Discussing options, chalk-boarding, all sorts of stuff. So, yeah, you know, you can have a long meeting. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have any meetings. Do them when you need them and when they’re appropriate. But would I rather do that in like four one-hour chunks that happen once a week for a month? Absolutely not.

Wailin: [00:13:06] And some people in the comments were also like, well, I really enjoy the social aspect of meetings just to get a little face time or you pick up on visual cues of the way they talk and the way they convey feelings and stuff. And, do you feel like there is an adequate alternative to that in the way that you do your work here?

Dan: [00:13:30] I think to some degree, that’s a fair assessment. Yes, of course, in person and having facial cues and body language, and that stuff, it does matter and it can make a difference. So, whenever we try to have a call or discussion about something that’s important, we’ll try to do it at least minimum through Hangout or Skype so we can see each other, and that helps.

[00:13:50] I do find it interesting though that people sometimes say like the recurring meeting is a good place to see your coworkers. I get what they’re saying but at the same time, a standing meeting, a recurring meeting shouldn’t be a time to socialize. We should use that time to work, and then, hey, let’s go get lunch. Let’s do a meeting for 30 minutes on a specific topic and let’s talk about what needs to be talked about regarding work, and then let’s go eat lunch for an hour and let’s go hang out and talk about your baby and your kids and the rest of your life. I understand what people are saying, like, and there’s a social bond you get when you work with people in the room together and I agree. But, I also think that that can be overdone by saying, like, if we don’t have any work to do, we’ll just shoot the shit during that 30 minute meeting or whatever. Those two things are not congruent. Those things don’t have to be at the same time.

[00:14:38] But. I also fully understand that for somebody who’s a junior person at a company, or someone that’s not a higher-level person, that it can be tough. That this message is like, well, what am I supposed to do. I’m just stuck with this. We’re in a meeting culture, what can I do?

[00:14:53] It really does help if it comes from leadership down because it’s tough if you are like a junior person to be like, hey, president of the company, I think meetings are stupid. And what I would challenge and hopefully ask those people to do is, those people in leadership positions is to at least just consider changing your default mindset. Maybe we don’t have to have a meeting for this one particular thing. And then the next thing would be like, hey, I won’t schedule a recurring meeting in situation where I normally would. Hopefully what will happen is that if you see it work, that it’ll send a message to other folks that it’s okay to sort of peel back these recurring meetings. They do have a way of just like, growing on top of each other and you don’t know any better. You’ve never tried doing it without it. And I know that because I’ve been on both the receiving end of meetings and I’ve been the one who scheduled them quite a bit, so I know that, having done it, why people do it. And I also understand that now, it clearly does not have to be that way.

Wailin: [00:15:45] And, in your post, you did offer a tip for people who aren’t managers but might want to crawl out from under the rock of meetings. What was your suggestion for them?

Dan: [00:15:55] My suggestion was basically like, to ask. You don’t know, just ask and say, do you really need me at this meeting? Maybe you can find a nicer way to say that, but basically get the idea across like, if you don’t actually need me at this meeting, I’ll come when I’m needed so let me know if you do need me there. But if you don’t need me, I’ll be at my desk doing real work.

[00:16:14] Broken By Design by Clip Art plays.

Wailin: [00:16:17] At my old job, I had a coworker who would sit in the back of meetings and passively-aggressively read a newspaper. But, nothing ever happened. I also worked at a newspaper, so maybe it was like—

Shaun: [00:16:27] Oh, so it’s like, it’s actually work.

Wailin: [00:16:29] Yeah, she was doing work. It was all sanctioned. And she was really good at her job, so I don’t think anyone minded. But other meetings are very high-pressure. And sometimes they don’t go according to plan, like in our next story.

Shaun: [00:16:42] Oh, I’d also just like to step in and say that every time you hear the word garter belt, it’s actually referring to a garter. This is my own personal pedantry. So, don’t email us or tweet at us about it.

Wailin: [00:16:55] Or you can just tweet at Shaun because he finds this distinction very important and then you can discuss this together.

Dan: [00:17:10] My name is Dan Miller and I am the CEO of Mulberrys Garment Care which is a premium toxin-free dry cleaner in Minneapolis/St. Paul and San Francisco Bay Area. Before I started Mulberrys I was a consultant McKinsey & Company which is a global management consulting firm.

[00:17:30] Before the week of my latest consultant engagement, I went to a wedding. And, at the wedding it was one of those traditions where the bride has a garter belt and takes off the garter belt and kind of throws it into the audience and I happened to catch it and casually just put it into my jacket pocket. And, didn’t think much of it.

[00:17:54] So, I took my suit into the dry cleaner that I was going to at the time, and they cleaned my suit and that week I had a very important meeting and I was actually running a little bit late to the client. And so I grabbed the suit that I’d taken to the dry cleaner, put it on and then ran over to the office and I came running into the meeting.

[00:18:18] And as I open the door, I’ll never forget this. I saw, out of the corner of my eye, this just kind of white thing in my pocket, and I remember thinking to myself, did I put a pocket square in this morning? And right as I open the door, I realize oh my God. This garter belt is hanging out.

[00:18:37] As you can imagine, everybody at the client just looked at me and laughed. It was quite embarrassing.

Wailin: [00:18:42] Dan went back to his dry cleaner to confront them about what had happened.

Dan: [00:18:46] I came back in, and I was a regular client. I told them what happened, and you know, all they had to do was show some level of empathy and oh, I’m really sorry about that. We’ll make sure to check pockets. And they denied it. They said, no, that must—you must have put that in there. And showed know responsibility whatsoever for the fact that they had left it in there. And, of course, I was pushing them, saying, so you think I put a garter belt in my pocket just for the fun of it, and they just didn’t want to admit responsibility.

Wailin: [00:19:21] This experience got Dan thinking.

Dan: [00:19:23] One of the things that my dad used to always say to me growing up is that if there’s something that’s a problem in your life, then there’s a business in solving it. And I always took that to heart and always thought, any time I had a problem, is there a business here? Is there something I could do with this? And with dry cleaning, beyond just the whole garter belt. It was a constant problem in my life. And so, that’s what I did is I literally made a list about all the things about dry cleaning that annoys me. My order being late. My order being damaged. Garter belts in my coat pocket. Wire hangers. And one by one just tried to check through what I could do better.

Wailin: [00:20:09] And one of those things he thought he could do better was check customers pockets for items that might have been left behind. Like, garters.

Dan: [00:20:16] So, when you drop off your clothes, and we mark them in, we check every pocket right away to see if we find something, and if we do, we’ll tag it and mark it into the system and let you know. Hey, we found money or we found keys, or you name it, we’ve definitely found some things. And then, when we send it to our cleaner, he also does a check to make sure that nothing is in the pockets and then when it comes out of the cleaning, we do a final inspection before we assemble everything to make sure that there’s nothing in the pockets or if there is, we take it out and give it to our customer. That’s not to say we never miss, but it drastically reduces the number of times we do miss.

Wailin: [00:21:01] At Mulberrys, Dan got to build the kind of dry cleaner he wanted. As the CEO, he also got to think about what kind of culture he wanted, especially around things like meetings.

Dan: [00:21:09] At McKinsey, one of the things that is a big part of the culture there is problem-solving sessions, which I always loved because one of the things that I think it’s so easy to forget is how five people talking about a problem and working together to solve it will always come up with a better answer than one person alone, even if it’s the smartest person in the world.

[00:21:32] On the bad side, there were times obviously, that I was working for a client that maybe didn’t have the most efficient meeting structure. Sometimes in larger companies, I think there’s a tendency, and it’s not unusual to see somebody have a meeting to plan for a meeting. And for me, that’s just a back-breaker.

[00:21:54] I don’t want to have one of those companies that has meetings just to have meetings. I want our meetings to be very focused on communicating and making sure everybody’s aware of what’s going on and how we’re pushing forward. And then, solving challenges that aren’t easy for one person to solve. That really require the full creative brain trust.

[00:22:16] I think if you focus on those two things then you can ensure that you’re using your meeting time productively versus just spinning your wheels.

[00:22:27] Broken By Design by Clip Art plays.

Shaun: [00:22:27] Rework is produced by Wailin Wong and me, Shaun Hildner. Our theme music is Broken By Design by Clip Art.

Wailin: [00:22:34] Special thanks to Max Nesterak, Shaina Schrooten, and everyone who sent in meeting stories. I’ll post one or two more on our website, Rework.fm where you can also find other show notes for this episode.

Shaun: [00:22:46] If you haven’t done so already, we’d love it if you wouldn’t mind leaving us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts. Or, whatever you’re using to listen to this right now. Heck, you can tell everyone at your next meeting about our show. We’re on Twitter @reworkpodcast and you can email us at hello@rework.fm. If you have any questions or comments you’d like answered on the show, you can also leave us a voicemail at…

Wailin: [00:23:07] Do you have it memorized?

Shaun: [00:23:08] We need it in here. No. It’s just on another. Oh, here, it’s right here.

Wailin: [00:23:10] (708)—

Shaun: [00:23:13] (708) 628-7850.