Well, that meeting could’ve been an email.
Have you heard that before? Or even said it before? Chances are, you answered “yes” to one (or more likely, both) of those questions.
Most of us share a distaste for meetings—especially the unproductive ones. Yet, we spend a lot of time in them. In fact, some estimates state that we waste up to 31 hours each month in pointless meetings. And even worse, the number of meetings the average person participates in increased by 12.9% during the pandemic.
But, while the griping about irrelevant, calendar-clogging meetings is common, there’s a lot less guidance about when a meeting actually needs to happen. How can you decide what warrants a real-time conversation and what can be accomplished with another method (and a lot less eye rolls)?
Choosing Between Asynchronous And Real-Time: 3 Factors To Consider
Here’s the thing: Meetings aren’t inherently bad. On the contrary, those live conversations have a number of benefits, like fostering a greater sense of camaraderie and collaboration and providing the opportunity to pick up on nonverbal cues (which our brains view as the most reliable indicator of thoughts and feelings).
Even further, real-time meetings can reduce miscommunication that often runs rampant with the written word. Communication expert Nick Morgan estimates that up to 50% of our written messages are actually misunderstood. Case in point? One of Morgan’s studies found that recipients of a two-word email (like “nice work”) interpreted as sarcastic 60% of the time, even when that wasn’t the author’s intent.
Meetings have their upsides, but asynchronous communication (meaning, communication that doesn’t require participants to be present at the same time) offers benefits too. It’s often more efficient, gives people time to process and reflect before responding, and leads to well-documented conversations and decisions.
There’s no tried and true formula to determine whether or not a specific meeting should happen asynchronously or in real-time. However, there are a few questions worth asking yourself. If you answer “yes” to one of them, then a live discussion is likely your best bet:
- Is this something that requires debate or deliberation? While productive conversations can happen asynchronously, a topic that needs a lot of in-the-moment feedback and adjusting is usually best done in-person.
- Is this topic potentially sensitive? News that could be nerve-wracking or hard to hear should typically be delivered in real-time to avoid assumptions and confusion.
- Is this subject easily misconstrued or misunderstood? Topics that are particularly complex often warrant a live discussion. Not only does it avoid pages of context and explanations, but it also provides an opportunity to ask and answer questions in the moment.
It’s also worth remembering that almost every effective meeting will be a blend of async and real-time.
For example, you might send an agenda for review and feedback ahead of a live meeting or a written summary once it’s done. Or, maybe you’ll send an email with some ideas for people to brainstorm individually before coming together for a conversation.
This decision isn’t all or nothing—there are ways that you can get the best of both communication approaches.
The Great Meeting Debate: 5 Meetings That Should Be Async (And 5 That Shouldn’t)
Remember, this isn’t a perfect science. But if you’re searching for a little more guidance about which route is right for you, here are some clearcut meetings that can be async—and some others that deserve to happen live.
5 Meetings That Can Be Async
- Project status reports: If you’re using a project management tool, a project’s progress should be centralized and readily accessible to everybody without a formal conversation.
- Tasks or project reviews: That report you need feedback on? There’s no need to sit down, read it aloud verbatim, and ask for suggestions. You’re better off sending it to others so they can take some quiet time to review it on their own and provide written comments.
- Low-pressure announcements: Did your company roll out a new blog design? Or did your co-founder receive an award? Those announcements are exciting and cause for celebration, but they’re often best shared in a quick written update—whether that’s a team-wide email or on your company intranet.
- Goal progress updates: Goals are important, but they’re another thing that people should have constant visibility into. It’s better to have a dashboard where everybody can see your progress on your OKRs or other success metrics, rather than taking up time to regularly talk them through.
- Recurring meetings that routinely finish early: You know that monthly cross-functional meeting that has turned into a glorified catch-up session and is always done in half the time it’s scheduled for? Yeah, that can probably be moved to an email or Slack thread—or removed from everybody’s plate entirely.
5 Meetings That Shouldn’t Be Async
- Performance reviews and feedback: Most performance reviews have some sort of written assessment or element. But, the actual conversation about how an employee’s doing is the most productive when you can have some real-time back and forth. And of course, termination of an employee always needs to occur with a live discussion.
- Career development conversations: Similarly, discussions about major career goals are most beneficial when they happen live. It provides an opportunity for managers and employees to ask questions, offer feedback, and hash out a growth plan together.
- Pressing or potentially concerning company updates: Inconsequential updates don’t need a meeting. But, sensitive or anxiety-inducing situations like restructuring or acquisitions deserve a person-to-person conversation.
- Conflict resolutions: It’s typically easier to address conflicts in-person as it reduces the anxiety and assumptions people deal with when they wait for a response. Trying to resolve rifts and disagreement through writing is not only less efficient, but it can lead to mounting frustration, confusion, and resentment.
- New team member welcomes: Bringing a new team member onboard is worth a team-wide video call or in-person meeting so that everybody can officially “meet.” The same is true for other bonding and culture-building activities. It’s hard to replace those real-time connections.
How To Make The Most Of Async Communication
Despite the nonchalant remarks about “meetings that could’ve been emails,” making that leap isn’t quite so easy. Here are a few tips to help you reduce misunderstandings and make the most of async communication.
1. Choose The Right Method
Email isn’t your only option. Today, async communication can also happen using:
- Instant messages
- Recorded video messages
- Shared documents and comments
- Updates in project management platforms
Take some time to think through what suits your message best. For example, a topic that requires some explanation and demonstration (but doesn’t require a live meeting) can be summarized in a brief video.
2. Use Emojis To Get Your Point Across
Nonverbal cues are hard to incorporate into several async communication methods, which is why emojis are so helpful for preventing people from misconstruing a message’s meaning.
In fact, one study found that the same part of our brain that processes facial expressions also processes emojis.
3. Create A Centralized Space
For as groan-worthy as meetings can be, needing to dig through endless email threads can also be frustrating—and overwhelming emails have been proven to increase our stress levels.
It’s better to have a centralized place for people to communicate about given topics, like dedicated Slack channels, shared documents, or Trello boards to collaborate on certain projects or campaigns.
That makes it easy for people to see the current status and get all of the context they need—without wasting time scrolling and searching.
4. Come Up With Communication Conventions
Your team likely already has some communication conventions for in-person meetings that have been shaped by your cultural norms—think things like not interrupting or ending conversations by recapping action items.
Async communication deserves some sort of system and culture code, too. This could include rules like leaving comments on docs instead of editing directly or using uniform labels to indicate status or urgency.
It might take a little bit of time to find what works best for you. But, getting these conventions in place maintains consistency and reduces confusion.
5. Ask For Feedback
Finally, if you’re wondering how to make your team’s async communication even more efficient and effective, the best thing you can do is ask for their input.
They’re bound to have some suggestions that you wouldn’t have thought of on your own. Plus, they’ll appreciate the opportunity to have some say in how your team communicates and interacts with each other.
Maybe That Meeting Should’ve Been An Email (Or Maybe Not)
When it comes to the most common grumbles about meetings, the fact that they’re completely unnecessary ranks near the top of the list—coming only behind meetings that start or end late.
There’s something to be said for making the switch from real-time conversations to async communication. But, that doesn’t mean it’s always the best option.
Instead, it’s worth remembering that communication isn’t one-size-fits-all. When determining whether a topic warrants a live discussion or can be handled in a less intrusive way, think through the content, your goal, and the participants you need to include.
Do that, and you’ll find the most appropriate method—not to mention eliminate the frustration (and under-the-breath mutters) that result from meetings that, well, really could’ve been emails.