Should Your Meeting be an Email Instead?

Posted By on May 26, 2020

As the jobs of the world continue embracing remote work, people are finding themselves drowning in days filled with Zoom meeting after Zoom meeting. It’s understandable, given the shift from office culture to one where teams are more distributed. It feels natural, in a way, to insist upon meetings. Meetings give coworkers time to discuss action items, they allow for synchronization in planning, and managers love having instant access to their entire team.

But meetings also have a dark side. They take time away from direct task work. They often include people who don’t need to be there. Oftentimes the people who were in the meeting walk away feeling no more clarity or preparedness for their task than they did when they joined.

Before you schedule your next meeting, there’s an important question to ask yourself — Should this be an email?

When Should You Schedule a Meeting?

Back in the days where we all worked in the same office, the decision on whether to schedule a meeting was simple and required only a few questions:

  • Do you want to collaborate on a work project?
  • Will you only invite the people who must be there?
  • Do you have a clear agenda for the meeting?

If you answered yes to all these questions, then you were scheduling a responsible (and likely effective) meeting. Maybe you need a brainstorming session that just isn’t conducive to email. Or you need to make sure that everyone has a chance to be heard at the same time. There are conversations that do benefit from having everyone in the same room. Those high-bandwidth talks, especially when visuals and sound might come into play, are still prime for face-to-face meetings. 

But these days the rules have changed. As more companies have employees working remote, across time zones, and even across teams, meetings have become more of a distraction than ever before. Today we have to add one more question to our list:

Could I accomplish the goals of this meeting through email?

While it’s arguable that we should have always been asking this question, it’s more important than ever that we do so now. With that in mind, now we have to ask more questions to make sure that our email handles the problems that we are trying to solve. Is there a different process for making a decision via an email thread versus in a meeting? Can an email be a reasonable alternative to a meeting when it comes to assigning projects, monitoring progress, and allowing for stakeholder accountability?

What Can An Email Do?

The first limitation to email that we need to address is timing. If you require real-time feedback, email isn’t the answer. But with more teams working across different time zones, it’s easy to forget that the meeting you want to schedule could be at an odd hour for other stakeholders. The question then becomes how important it is for that feedback to be real-time. Could the same results come out of asynchronous communication, as long as everyone meets their deadlines? In most cases, the answer is yes. It’s a simple matter of setting expectations!

With that big rock moved out of the way, let’s talk about the places where email works well. Chances are good that you’ve sat through a meeting where one of these areas was the sole focus, and you might kick yourself a little bit if you were the one who scheduled said meeting.

Gathering Feedback – You don’t need a meeting for this. Email’s natural threading works well for allowing people to pick out parts of a discussion and then comment on them. Moving this discussion to email also means that there isn’t a risk of lost or incorrect notes, leading to someone taking the wrong actions later.

Sharing Information – Maybe it’s a product update, or progress toward a goal. Whatever the reason, email is a great way to share information with your team or the whole company. Just make sure to be judicious in your use of “reply all.”

Getting Updates – You’ve been waiting to hear back from team members about their progress, and it seems like nothing is moving forward. That might sound like the ideal time to rally everyone into a Zoom room, but you’re probably breaking one of the meeting rules. Instead, opt for direct emails to gather answers and then combine them to share with the team.

Gathering Answers – How many times have you heard “let me email you about that after the meeting”? Even if everyone comes in prepared, there are almost always questions that need further research. So skip the meeting and head to email instead.

How to Replace Your Meeting With an Email

No, not every meeting can go away in exchange for an email, but many of them can. To best handle this transition, it’s worth spending some time to gain an understanding of how to put the tool to the best use.

Aim for Clarity First — What is the purpose of sending out the email? Don’t shy away from explaining that you are trying to avoid having to schedule a meeting. Lay out your intentions early, and be sure to set explicit action items that your recipients need to complete.

Don’t Be Stingy — If you have a big project that you’re managing over email versus meetings, try to keep each email limited in its scope. Yes that means that you’ll send more messages, but this will help you to track down those messages by subject when you need to reference them later. Separating your messages also helps to provide clarity because each one should address a limited amount of subjects.

Be Mindful of Timing — This is especially important if you’re working with a team that is distributed across different time zones. Try to avoid sending messages at odd hours when someone may feel pressured to respond. Try using Send Later to make sure that the message hits their inbox in a timely manner.

Always Follow Up — You’re going to handle this part like you would if you were meeting. Set reminders for yourself to follow up with your team. Sometimes it’s nothing more than a nudge, but choosing to Boomerang a message to the top of your inbox if there is no reply will help you to stay on top of things.

Document. Everything. — It might sound obvious, but we’re human and we forget! Before you send your first email, write out a plan. As you send them, you can link back to that plan so that you don’t have to include all of the details in each different email. As things progress, keep adding to the documentation. You want a central repository of knowledge, and this is the only way that you will get it.

Enjoy More Time — Yes, this is a real step! A major purpose of trying to schedule fewer meetings is to free up time and allow it to be better spent. So dig in deep and knock out the work that you want to be doing. Or step away! Take a walk or enjoy another cup of coffee. The end result is what matters, and you should now have more time to make those results happen.

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