Physical meetings are a waste of time for remote workers

Physical meetings are a waste of time for remote workers

“Come into the office. I think that weekly physical meetings and updates from everybody in person would help us get the ball rolling on this generic project and it should only take a couple of hours every Monday morning to…”

STOP. Please stop. I can feel the productivity slipping away from me and out of my grasp.

It’s not that I’m against physical collaboration, I’m not. I believe that you should meet everybody you are working for wherever logistically possible. Meeting new clients face to face gives you a chance to build a foundation for a more robust long-term relationship. Meeting existing and previously virtual clients face to face gives you a chance to cement a digital relationship into one with a more human packaging.

Nearly every sales, marketing, and comms training 101 class includes the arbitrary statistic about the percentages of human communication that takes place in words, in intonation, in visual clues and body language. I don’t think anyone outside of the business of sales training has ever managed to prove this statistic accurate. However, it sounds reasonable to everyone who hears it, and the message is a good one; email is a shit way of communicating with other human beings.

While I appreciate there are some great reasons to have actual real-life physical meetings with other human beings on the team, there are some massively positive reasons why I can accomplish far more now that I am self-employed than when I was confined to an office under the strip-lighting of doom.

I believe I am more productive, more focused, and produce a more significant positive output of work when fully bought into the client I am working for, and that only happens when I have skin in the game.

As a self-employed freelancer, I can work the same role for the same people as I did as a Salary-man, but the difference now is stark. I care more. I guess I always did do my school homework better under pressure. So why doesn’t every company set their workforce free to be more productive?

Physical Meetings need to have purpose
Consider Physical Meetings a project: they need to have a purpose and measurable outputs

The Big Players Banned Remote Work

Well, it turns out that during Marissa Mayer Yahoo dynasty that remote working was deemed less than popular when trying to implement the ‘one Yahoo’ era and that everyone needed to be physically together:

To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side. That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices. Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings. Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home. We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together.

Beginning in June, we’re asking all employees with work-from-home arrangements to work in Yahoo! offices.

Although Yahoo’s rejection of ROWE seems like a fairly damning indictment of working from home when part of a large corporate megalith, it’s not necessarily a closed case that remote working has a negative effect on productivity.

It’s possible that in Yahoo’s case, the corporate sense of belonging was so incredibly damaged by the massive downturn, that they needed to everyone together to start again on the team dynamics and try to stem the outward flow of talent elsewhere.

This view seems to be more likely as when later challenged a Yahoo! spokesperson backpedalled to Forbes “This isn’t a broad industry view on working from home. This is about what’s right for Yahoo, right now.”

Reddit’s distributed-work plan was undistributed with the phrase:

remote work and multiple offices work for some people at some companies, some of the time“.

Best Buy’s Results Only Work Environment fell by the wayside as, in the face of challenging business environments, it seems that the corporate financial panic sets in and it’s literally a call for all hands on deck.

“Bottom line, it’s ‘all hands on deck’ at Best Buy and that means having employees in the office as much as possible to collaborate and connect on ways to improve our business,” explained company spokesman Matt Furman.

The idea that employees are judged solely on the work that they did and not judged on the manner in how they accomplished it seems like a groundbreaking concept. In this time of omnipresent metrics and measurement, it should be easy to implement and track. You are measured on productive output and not clocking in and clocking out times.

I know, as a self-employed freelance remote worker who runs my own business, I am also screaming at the computer, “but the output is the only measurement that matters! It’s how my clients judge and pay me!”.

One of the cornerstones of the ROWE system? Meetings are optional. You decide if your output will benefit from physical meetings and the collaboration that inherently comes from those. You think you would be better off continuing working without the group interaction? Then carry on working, and we will judge your output – as you would expect.

But does ROWE work? Well, yes it does; voluntary turnover rates went down as much as 90 per cent on ROWE teams, while productivity on those teams increased by 41 per cent.

So what went wrong with the revolution? Sadly, the recession did. The global downturn saw a change of leadership at a number of the big remote work players, and when you have a new direction, it tends to come with a new broom as well, and they start by sweeping out the old regime and implementing a back to basics style of organisational change.

That’s what happened with Yahoo when Marissa Mayer got there, and the same process occurred with Best Buy when, along with many others, they had their financial difficulties. But the truth is that they’re not going back to basics. There is still an expectation that employees should answer email at home and be available at all hours if the work needs it. Maybe it’s not damning output-oriented remote working – could it be that it’s just an underhand way of extracting more free overtime?

Physical Meetings: the positives

But are face to face meetings all bad? Is there no need for us humans to interact with each other during the working hours of our days?

Physical interaction between colleagues is, of course, valuable. I’m a great believer in meeting clients and colleague face to face at the beginning and end of discrete projects. I find it constructive to be able to shake someone’s hand, look them in the eyes (in a paying attention way, not a weird way), and make sure that we are all on the same page, schedule, and understand the relative importance of the parts of the project.

Your work is a piece of the jigsaw that tessellates with other worker’s work. You need to know which parts of the project you need to accomplish when so that you can enable others to do their jobs too. I’m a massive fan of the project Gantt chart (and the mindmap/spider-diagram too).

Having a clear project plan at the start that says that person A’s work has to reach Milestone X so that person B can begin on Milestone Y, ensures that all the human components of a project understand the whole. While work autonomy is all very good – you are just one piece of the pie, and we need you to pull your weight in time with everyone else.

Having a personal connection achieved through initial physical contact is an excellent way of ensuring that you don’t forget that there’s a human being on the other end of the emails.

Collaborative Working: remote working team members need to pull together
Collaborative Working: I work better if I pull on Mondays and Fridays – are you ok to pull on Tuesdays through Thursdays?

Replicating the positives of Physical Meetings in other ways

But Skype revolutionised the workplace world, right? Well yes in a way it did, but it’s going to take a generation before the millennials are all in management positions and video calling is as embedded in our lives as the Jetsons promised.

Until then we need to build a portfolio of practices, tools, and technology to enable us to work together, remotely.

As a starting point, check out our Anywheres Resources page for freelancers, remote workers, and digital nomads. It’s a great list that we are continuously looking to add to as a resource for places to co-work, tools, and tech for the Anywheres.

Try out apps like Trello, one of our favourite project planning websites and apps or XMind another one of the critical tools that keep us up and running. Both these apps enable us to design our projects and timelines and to let everyone see as much overview as they want, if they are a big picture person, or to solely focus on the next individual task in hand if that’s how they work better.

FaceTime, Skype, and all the video calling apps are great for daily or weekly check-ins – or to replace that dreaded Monday Morning meeting. By the way, if you’re working for me, then that Monday Morning call is really important to make sure that priorities haven’t changed over the weekend after I saw something shiny and decided to focus on something entirely new. And when I say it’s important – I mean it’s important for me, as I need you all to get me to refocus on the original plan again!

Whatsapp groups tend to run away with themselves, and Twitter, when used as an instant messenger, is useful, but can be horrendously distracting, so maybe block that along with the BBC news website by using a blocking app like Freedom. I miss ICQ – perhaps we should start a campaign to make it popular again.

Relationships and Mental Health

Working remotely can be challenging to our mental health. Working by yourself can be isolating and lonely, and that’s why so many freelancers and remote workers end up hogging tables in Starbucks or renting a desk in a co-working space; being alone, together, fights some of that isolation while allowing us to maintain our productivity.

One of my favourite tweets on the subject was this insightful nugget from Alex Riley:

Writing tip: pretend that you are a literate and computer-savvy dog. You need regular walks outside, preferably in parks and open spaces. When at home, keep the radio on in the background so it feels like you’re not completely alone. Eat food.

Many cities have a thriving freelancer community that you can join and participate in, and there are Slack channels to keep you chatting with likeminded individuals (as long as the app doesn’t kill your computer resources).

You have to find the balance of what works for you and achieve that zen-like status of work focus combined with the human need to feel part of something bigger. Where the fulcrum of that is for you is something only you can decide.

Measurement, Output, and Trust

Physical meetings are not all a waste of time for remote workers, but they need to be weighed up for the positive and negative aspects that they inherently bring with them.

Consider Physical Meetings a project in themselves: they need to have a purpose and measurable outputs. The potential audience needs to be thought about and prioritised, grouped into A) collaborators and B) people to whom we report the outcomes.

Have a plan to kick-off a project with everyone in a meeting via phone, video, or in person, and close off a project with a written review and maybe an in-person celebration/wind-down.

Be clear about the planned objectives and every participant’s role within the project. Be clear about how the cogs of the well-oiled machine interlink with each other. Be explicit about task dependencies and ensure that the resources are there for everyone to function individually as well as a group.

But remember, the cogs of your machine are human beings with lives outside of the project. Value your people and let the people value the work. That’s how successful projects are made, wherever the people are.

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