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This Meeting Could Have Been an Email: 9 Examples to Avoid
June 10, 2022

When’s the last time you sat through a meeting, and before the end, thought: this meeting could have been an email. This feeling has been shared by so many professionals that the expression has literally taken on a life of its own, carving out a new niche of despairing office humor. Now sported on mugs, shirts, GIFs, and countless memes – pointless meetings have become a bonding pain point across the workforce. 

And (unfortunately) it’s not just a silly joke. 71% of senior managers believe most meetings are actually unproductive, and 32% of workers attend meetings they think could have been an email. But with a 69.7% increase in meetings since the start of the pandemic, in part, thanks to remote work, a shocking 78.7% of professionals are stressed about bigger task loads and a lack of time to get it all done every week. While not every meeting can, or should, realistically be an email – taking a hard look at your team’s meeting culture is crucial to productivity and limiting wasted time. In this post, we’ll compare meetings vs. emails, and highlight 9 common examples of meetings that could have been an email, featuring personal anecdotes from the community!

What should be a meeting vs. email

When done right, effective meetings are awesome opportunities for teams to authentically connect, ideate, innovate, and push progress for the company. But on the flip side, unproductive meetings distract employees from high-value task work, and can cause demotivation and mental exhaustion in the long run. But when you’re trying to make the most of everyone’s time – how do you know when to schedule a meeting vs. send an email? Here’s a basic guideline to follow. 

When to schedule a meeting

  • Group meetings for brainstorming or problem solving.
  • Topics that require discussion or decision making. 
  • Planning sessions with a lot of different elements.
  • Networking opportunities and relationship building. 

When to send an email

  • Simple logistics.
  • Standard check-ins.
  • Basic requests. 
  • Information sharing.
  • Announcements. 

So if the topic really requires dynamic contribution from team members – it can be a worthwhile meeting for real-time, or synchronous, communication. But if it’s a basic exchange of information – an email, chat message, or comment on a task/project is usually the way to go. Emails, chats and comments are examples of asynchronous communication, which are communications that aren’t happening in real-time. This kind of communication is more prevalent in remote workspaces since you’re in a different physical location than your team. Both have productive uses and their own challenges. 

When considering a meeting, it’s also important to keep in mind the true cost of that meeting for your team. On top of the cost of every attendees time in that meeting, you also have to account for the interruption cost to each team member’s day and resulting productivity lost to context switching. Doist created a realistic equation to consider when deciding on a meeting that might put the option of a ‘quick meeting’ in more perspective:

[Length of meeting in hours + Productive time lost to context switching x 2 for both before and after] x [Number of attendees] x [Average hourly cost of attendees]  = [$$$ cost of the meeting]

While there’s some gray area in the middle for when it’s best to book meetings vs. send an email – let’s take a look at common examples of ineffective meetings that would definitely be better off as emails.

1. It would have been a quick office chat 

With a huge shift to hybrid and remote work environments, it’s not surprising that 85% of meetings are organized as remote vs. in-person. And the reality is that remote work can be limiting when it comes to what would have once been a quick, office hallway chat. But that doesn’t mean that calling a meeting just to ‘sync up’ is an efficient alternative.  

Try to not make impromptu meetings the default in dispersed teams, and instead, start by sending asynchronous communications via email, Slack message, or comments. It allows you to be more clear and concise with what you want to say, and gives others time and flexibility to get back to you about non-priority issues. You can always schedule a meeting later if you really need to. 

Community contribution: For true ‘watercooler’ conversations – use the internal messaging platforms instead of clogging up email inboxes for ‘non-important’ communications.

2. You need specific information 

Have you ever been invited to a meeting just to be asked (or asked someone else) for specific, straightforward information – only to need extra time after said meeting to compile your answer and send it over to them? Asking your direct reports or coworkers for data in real-time is counterproductive when they haven’t had the time to prepare for it.

Community contribution: There’s always that one person. Have a data question that takes 3 minutes to research and 20 seconds to answer? Let’s block off a 30-minute Zoom to go over all the details so it takes longer to get connected and do the small talk - just for me to have to email you afterwards anyway. Oh, and don’t forget the unscheduled phone call immediately after too because he forgot to ask the right question.

Sending an email with information requests allows you to communicate the task better, creates a distinct to-do for the other person, and allows time for the answer to be researched and complete as opposed to having to be followed-up on again later - probably in another meeting. 

3. You want feedback

While presenting visual projects like a slide deck or design mockups to your team can be helpful in a meeting – hopping on a call to review content like a strategy doc or data report for feedback in real-time is often inefficient (and awkward). 

Attach your document in an email with a request for feedback and note specific areas you’d like thoughts on. This allows everyone the opportunity to review it in their time and formulate more valuable feedback and with less risk of groupthink, where team members piggyback on others’ opinions instead of sharing what they really think.

4. You’re just relaying information

Community contribution: Every other week I have a 30 minute meeting where 30 people attend a Zoom call and fill out their updates on a Google Doc. We all silently review it in Zoom for 10 minutes, then the facilitator will read the comments people left. That's it. No collaboration, no discussion. 

Before you get the team together to make an announcement, consider that meetings are multiples of their attendees. 10 people sitting through a 6-minute meeting listening to someone relaying information is an hour of productive time wasted just in attendance, plus the cost of context switching around it. When announcements don’t require action, just send an email and attach any relevant attachments to fill out or review – if it’s something better said than written or requires a demonstration, send over a video message through a platform like Loom. That way you can reach everyone at once to share news, updates, and changes – without having to disrupt everyone’s workflow.

5. It’s not relevant to everybody

Keeping in mind that meeting ‘cost’ goes up with every attendee present, it's important to be critical of who is really providing value in a meeting. 

Community contribution: Every week, scores of us had a conference meeting over the phone that lasted three hours. We all had to listen to the entire meeting. My contribution took a minute.

When you have attendees sitting through meetings about things that do not pertain to them, it’s a colossally expensive waste of employees' time and company money. To keep group meetings agile and valuable – limit attendees to those who are active contributors to the issue, with the option to email meeting notes to others who might benefit from an overview without having to be pulled from their priorities.

6. The most important attendees can’t make it

Building off the above note – if the people that actually do need to be there can’t make it, it’s probably best to send a group email covering any important notes, and reschedule for a better time that works for key attendees. 

Having incomplete meetings can mean more follow-up down the line, which isn’t maximizing time or productivity for the team. Availability calendars are a great way to help streamline group scheduling and avoid these kinds of conflicts from coming up. 

7. You’re rehashing the same meeting

Community contribution: 

  • Every week we have a 1-1.5 hour status meeting with 20 people high in the firm, going over the exact same thing. 
  • An hour-long weekly meeting that got nowhere in my last position. They kept going back to the same topic, with no conclusions.

This scenario is obviously a common pain point. If you find yourself in meetings that keep going over the same issues without progress – there’s a good chance that the meetings aren’t being efficiently managed. 

But the only thing worse than an unproductive meeting is to make it a recurring unproductive meeting! If there are no updates on progress or plans for a new approach – an email is enough to keep everyone up to speed, and allows everyone more time to put towards deep work.

8. You don’t have a clear objective

Not having a clear plan is a surefire way to run a meeting into the ground (as per the above examples). And while 65% of professionals think both the attendees and the person leading the meeting are responsible for making the meeting productive – a level of preparation needs to be facilitated to ensure group meetings don’t end up being completely pointless. 

Group meetings, like brainstorming sessions for example, have unique challenges that require dedicated planning to be successful. Assigning a moderator, setting clear objectives, and only scheduling your group meetings as-needed helps reduce unnecessary and unproductive sessions. 

Community contribution: The “let’s do another meeting next week” when there was no progress, again. If you and your team are not prepared - you guessed it - send an email update until you have the time to organize a thoroughly planned meeting.

9. You’re just checking-in for updates 

While there seems to be a misconception that meetings are more thorough than an email, the reality is that only 56% of workers walk away from virtual meetings with clear action items that don’t require follow-up. 

When you’re just syncing up for status updates – you’re wasting time that could be better used elsewhere, like on your task work. Sending a follow-up email on a task or assignment is a more efficient way to flag something important and determine if a meeting is really necessary. And if chasing down updates is eating up your week – consider setting up weekly status reports to replace those inefficient status meetings. That way, when it does make sense to have a meeting, it can be focused on providing more value for everyone involved. 

This meeting could have been an email 

Professionals average 25.6 meetings a week - more than half of our workweek! And unfortunately many of these meetings aren’t a productive use of our limited time. By being critical of the true cost vs. value of meetings we organize and attend, we can start to create a more productive meeting workflow for everyone on our team. 

Before scheduling your next meeting, ask yourself: could this meeting be an email? And if the answer is yes, or even just maybe – start with an email. You can always schedule a meeting later. 🙂

For important meetings that need to stay on the calendar, check out AI tools like Smart Meetings that automatically find the best time across everyones calendar so your meetings always schedule at a convenient time for the group.

Have a great anecdote to add to one of these scenarios? Or just a perfectly tragic example of a meeting that could have (or should have) been an email? Tweet us @reclaimai to share!

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