If you feel like your work life is consumed by meetings, you’re not imagining things. Meetings in the work-from-anywhere era, while shorter, are more numerous, and are attended by more people. Zoom fatigue, now firmly implanted in the lexicon, is a legitimate malady that affects brains, moods, and productivity. In response, many organizations have instituted a company-wide meeting-free day, typically a Friday, as a form of respite. Salesforce went one better and experimented with meeting-free weeks, or what we called “async week.”
Over the course of several weeks in late 2021, large chunks of the organization tried to go meeting-free for one full week, 23,000 employees in all. Everyone from senior executives to individual contributors were encouraged to cancel all meetings (with exceptions for critical business issues, trainings and customer meetings) in an attempt to find better ways to work and take more control of their workday.
With millions working remotely, this kind of growth hacking is front of mind for many businesses. A recent article in Harvard Business Review noted the need to change how we work. “Well meaning band-aid solutions [like logging off at 5 p.m.] achieve little if the toxic norms that rob knowledge workers of autonomy and control remain in place.”
If a meeting-free week sounds like heaven to you, read on. You might be surprised by what we learned.
Before async week
In a meeting-heavy culture, it’s important to create a detailed plan before asking thousands of people to go meeting-free, and to give them enough time to prepare for what can be a strange experience. Salesforce distributed a preparation guide that included goals and expectations. Tips included moving brainstorming meetings to digital channels like Jamboard or Miro, moving regular standup meetings to Slack or Quip updates, and best practices for focusing on heads-down work for long stretches.
“It was hard to wrap my head around working asynchronously,” said Peter Gaylord, vice president of research and content, who spends most days in back-to-back meetings. “I was intrigued by the concept but a little skeptical. Still, I was happy to test the boundaries of how we operate.”
Another important element of this experiment was circulating a frequently-asked-questions (FAQ) document which addressed questions like: What is considered a critical meeting? How do I avoid feeling isolated? How do I keep projects on track? How do I prioritize?
The answer to most of these questions was to rely on collaborative digital tools to, for example, greet the team, share a playlist, and replace standup meetings with integrated workflows for updates.
During async week
The first few days were a bit jarring for some, particularly those who have a daily stand-up meeting to prioritize workloads and update team members.
“Daily stand-ups are really important for our team, and it was hard to get things moving for the day when you didn’t have everyone’s immediate updates,” said Erika Symczak, senior specialist, project management.
In lieu of the regular meeting, her team put deadlines in place. Everyone updated the team via Slack by 8 a.m., with feedback required by 10 a.m. But that had its drawbacks.
“Two hours is a long time,” she said. “We could have covered the updates and feedback in 15 minutes in our standup, so I felt the inefficiency.”
This was reinforced in an internal survey, which showed increased written communication was a friction point during the week. The other downside of relying solely on asynchronous digital communication, some said, is the lack of context and nuance, and the difficulty in staying on top of the increase in digital updates and message streams.
When extra clarity was required, some teams used Slack huddles, an audio tool for connecting with someone inside a channel or direct message. Huddles are helpful when talking through something in a quick call is faster than typing it out.
Slack clips lets people record audio and video clips to share updates and short bursts of information with colleagues. Clippers can share their screen during the recording, and all clips are automatically transcribed. Several teams used clips to share top priorities ahead of a recent on-site meeting.
The best part? Clips can only be up to three minutes long.
It will take time, effort, and more bold experimentation to change ingrained work habits, even if new collaborative tools make asynchronous work easier.
Several teams used shared documents to provide updates throughout the week. The takeaway: many realized they should be providing these updates ahead of scheduled meetings in the future, to save time, and to give managers a chance to digest the updates earlier and have responses ready.
“A big benefit was questioning whether you really need a 60-minute meeting,” Gaylord said.
Another big benefit — well-being and having more control over the workday. Employees appreciated having time to make lunch, walk the dog, take long-delayed training, or think deeply without the crunch of preparing for another meeting.
In these circumstances, employees used tools to pause notifications and alerts. At the same time, teams learned to set their status and schedule messages to colleagues based on that colleague’s status.
“It made us more intentional about communications,” said Symszak. “If something was urgent, we said so in the first few words, and consolidated thoughts into one message versus several.”
Today’s collaboration tools are designed to reduce clutter and increase collaboration and productivity, and give the user much more control over how they work. While digital tools can’t — and shouldn’t — replace regular meetings, our experiment forced people to reconsider their cadence, and think twice about scheduling a meeting in the first place.
What we learned from async week
As much as we might complain about meetings, especially the virtual kind, many people missed the interaction. Indeed, loss of connection was noted as a key friction point. In particular, the social touchpoints that occur throughout the day. This was particularly acute for people working remotely who live alone, or those who work collaboratively across functions.
“There is not a single aspect of the program I run that I do by myself,” said LeeAnn Edmonston, director of customer marketing. “During the week it was just me trying to whiteboard the world by myself.”
More than anything, we learned that sustained change is hard to achieve. It will take time, effort, and more bold experimentation to change ingrained work habits, even if new collaborative tools make asynchronous work easier.
Despite the drawbacks, the majority of employees surveyed, 81%, said they wanted more async weeks at least quarterly. One organization, technology, marketing, and products, (TMP) is likely to plan several in 2022.
Key positive takeaways from some of the 23,000 employees who participated:
- 93% reported at least one positive impact, including less stress (70%) and higher productivity (72%)
- 61% worked the same number of hours, while 20% said they worked less
- 52% said the pace of work was more sustainable and manageable
- People took it seriously — the percentage of people who spent 10 hours or less in meetings went from 37% in a typical week to 91%; people spending 20 hours or more in meetings dropped from 21% to 1%
- 46% said they learned how to work better asynchronously
Affirmations aside, here’s a sure sign that change on this scale is hard: only 18% said they strongly agreed that the meeting-free week would change their behavior toward meetings, while only one in eight identified a meeting they could permanently cancel or stop attending.
That doesn’t mean the organization will stop experimenting to find new, bold, better ways to work.
“It took an executive force function for us to try this,” said Gaylord. “There were clear bright spots, but we have to keep doing it to get better at it. It’s worthwhile to push ourselves and get better.”