“This meeting could’ve been an email.”
You’ve probably thought that or vented to a coworker about it. But when was the last time you took action to make a meeting an email?
Most meetings have good intentions, but they’re notorious for jamming up schedules and interrupting deep work. If you’re suffering from meeting madness, you’re not alone. According to Harvard Business Review, 71% of senior managers said their meetings were unproductive, and 65% said meetings kept them from getting their own work done.
Fortunately, there’s a solution — and it’s more strategic than hitting “decline” on your next calendar invite — a weekly status report. A weekly report lets individual team members asynchronously log their activity, questions, and comments on a shared platform so they can spend less time in meetings and more time checking things off their to-do list.
In this tutorial, you’ll learn which meetings to cancel and how to strategically replace them with weekly reports while still keeping your team accountable so you can finally clear up your calendar.
Step 1: Identify which meetings can be replaced with status reports
As your organization grows and becomes more complex, you have to become more intentional about deciding which meetings are effective, and which are pointless. Atlassian notes that employees lose as many as 31 hours per month to unproductive meetings. Just think what your team could do with that time: reclaim nights and weekends, get ahead on next week’s agenda, invest in personal development—the options are endless.
Here are a couple of methods you can use to gauge the efficacy of your meetings:
1. Use anonymous surveys
Conducting surveys with tools such as SurveyMonkey or Google Forms can give you an objective understanding of how employees feel about meeting frequency and duration. Best of all, you and your fellow employees can fill them out anonymously so nobody has to worry about what the manager thinks of your opinions.
Here are some good questions you can include in your meeting survey template:
- If this meeting didn't exist, what would you expect to use as an alternative?
- Overall, does this meeting tend to sap your energy or contribute to it?
- What do you think the purpose of this meeting is?
- On a scale of 1-5, how well does this meeting serve its intended purpose?
- Do you think this meeting is the only forum where [insert topic here] gets discussed, or are there other places where it happens as well?
The goal is to get data about how people feel about meetings, and use that to solve the bigger problem: convincing executives and upper management that teams can still be productive without wrangling tons of people for a meeting.
It naturally is going to make managements lives a bit harder (as it involves the recurring commitment to reading these status reports) but this kind of data provides a window into how the team feels about the meeting(s) within the organization.
2. Conduct calendar audits
In order to confirm you have a meeting problem, conduct a calendar analysis. These reviews should be broken into two parts:
- A review with individual teams during 1:1s and team meetings to get the groundtruth of meetings for individual contributors and mid-managers.
- An executive review or upper management review of recurring status meetings to ask many of the same questions, but with an idea toward "are we overloading the organization with meetings that should be replaced by status reports?”
Here are a few questions that can unlock useful insights by simply having the whole team designate ten minutes to review their calendars:
- How much time did you spend in meetings last week?
- How many of those meetings were geared to your priorities?
- Of the non-essential meetings, which ones could be deduplicated?
Deduplication is key here. Meetings can spiral out of control for many reasons, but a main reason is people getting the same idea at once ("We need to get everyone in a room to figure this thing out!") This results in redundant meetings that have a mix of the same people with various overlaps, all of which serve the same purpose.
The more feedback you obtain, the easier it is to decide which meetings should stay and which should go.
3. Encourage live feedback
If you want to be less formal, simply ask employees whether they think the meetings they attend are truly beneficial, and if not, what they suggest as an alternative.
Here’s one useful question: If this meeting didn’t exist, would you want or need an alternative? If the answer is yes, follow up with “What would that alternative look like?”
Some team members might be skeptical about reducing the number of meetings they attend. To solidify buy-in, you may find it helpful to use data to put the value of weekly status reports (and the cost of excessive meetings) into perspective.
For example, Atlassian reports that unnecessary meetings cost U.S. businesses $37 billion annually. If your team can improve their efficiency through a better communication strategy, time management best practices, and scrutiny around the necessity of recurring meetings, you can significantly reduce the cost of this wasted time.
Keep in mind: the goal isn't to eliminate meetings altogether, but reframe the purpose of meetings as “something has to get done that realistically couldn't be done asynchronously.”
Product demos, working sessions, and even standups are reasonable because they tend to be either a) short and sweet or b) geared towards a specific outcome or deliverable. But a 50-VP meeting to just "Review In-Flight Engineering Work" is an example of an antipattern you want to eliminate.
While canceling one meeting doesn’t put that lost money back into your bank account, adopting a weekly reporting strategy can increase the entire team’s productivity and allow you to reallocate resources that would have gone to new hires back into the company.
Minimizing or eliminating meetings is a collaborative process that requires buy-in from your whole team. If you notice employees are stretched too thin, you might be tempted to scrap meetings with little to no explanation, but making these decisions unilaterally may cause more problems than they solve.
Once your team agrees which meetings are holding you back, it’s time to remove or replace them.
Step 2: Choose a weekly report template that works for your team
There are a couple different weekly status report template styles you can use to provide updates and monitor your teams performance and activity in place of meetings:
1. Document or spreadsheet templates
Many status meetings can be replaced by simply having each member of your team complete a weekly report. These templates summarize all of the work completed during the week, and how these activities contributed to the team’s priorities and goals. Here are a few document or spreadsheet style tools you can consider for your weekly report template:
Part of the purpose of weekly reports is that they need to be simple enough that organizations and teams stick to them. If they become too complex and cumbersome, they don't get written or reviewed often enough, and you inevitably fall back to meetings.
Unlike traditional meetings where at best you may have a high-level recording of meeting minutes, weekly status reports establish a documented record the whole team can access on-demand and prevent people from giving lengthy answers that eat up precious time.
- Things I said I'd do this week and their results
- Issues that came up
- Things I'm doing next week
“Information sharing happens more efficiently via written word,” says Zapier CEO Wade Foster. “Another benefit is that it's documented if it's needed later.”
If there’s one thing to add to this workflow, it would be how it ties to your priorities (more to come on this below). These write-ups also make one-on-one meetings far more structured and productive. Also, don’t be surprised to find that a template like this can actually be a replacement for some of your meetings.
2. Asynchronous video templates
When you need to talk your team through updates, you can record a short video, share it with your team to watch when convenient, then (if necessary) use live meeting time to discuss or ask questions. While not the best template for weekly status reports, video recordings are perfect for team updates, especially product demos, as they can help you either:
- Eliminate meetings
- Limit the size of meetings
For example, a product demo might only need a product manager, engineering manager, designer, and the team. You can record that demo and distribute it to a broader audience so everyone can get up to speed on your progress without actually having to get people together for a much bigger meeting.
Some good asynchronous video tools to consider for your video update template include:
Asynchronous videos allow people to retain as much time as possible for deep work and ensure every minute of a meeting is dedicated to active problem solving, not digesting information.
So instead of using this template as your weekly status report, go with videos to ensure everyone has a chance to “pre-read” before meetings. For example, you might normally spend half of a 30-minute meeting explaining information about a new feature, then put your team on the spot for questions. With asynchronous video, you not only slash the first 15 minutes, but you give everyone an opportunity to think of better questions before the meeting.
Step 3: Create a plan to keep everyone accountable that’s easy to adopt as a recurring routine
Asynchronous weekly reports are only as effective as the processes you use to keep them up and running. To keep everyone accountable, managers have to set clear expectations for how and when reports are completed.
Let’s say you need your team to hit the ground running every Monday morning on their own, as you’re a distributed team with a wide range of working hours. In that case, you could require all employees to submit weekly status reports every Friday morning. This leaves room to ask questions and ensures everyone is on pace to meet next week’s deadlines.
One easy way to ensure reports are submitted on time is with Reclaim’s Weekly Status Habit, a smart time blocking tool for Google Calendar that automatically finds the best time in your schedule for your recurring routines so you never have to worry about falling off track.
If your weekly reports include subjective responses (“How are you going to handle the client’s budget restrictions?”), it’s crucial to have rules for clarity and thoroughness. Jeff Bezos implemented a management technique at Amazon where employees had to write down their ideas in full sentences to minimize questions and keep everyone on the same page.
“Full sentences are harder to write,” said Bezos. “They have verbs. The paragraphs have topic sentences. There is no way to write a six-page, narratively structured memo and not have clear thinking.”
You definitely don’t need your employees writing six-page memos every week. The point is you need to extract clear, logical information without wasting time. There are really only several questions a good weekly status report template needs to include, and all are focused around the Three Ps -- Progress, Problems, Priorities:
- TLDR: quick summary of how things went that week, and what's on tap for next week.
- Priorities: a reminder of what your top 3-5 priorities are over the next several weeks to months.
- Progress: progress that you made against those priorities, and any other miscellaneous stuff you want to mention.
- Problems: blockers and issues that are preventing you from making progress on key priorities.
- Next week: what you plan to accomplish next week on your priorities, and any plans for clearing obstacles.
The first item, priorities, is incredibly important as an anchor. If you receive weekly status reports that are essentially long lists of tasks, you’re missing the key element. Tasks matter, but they lack a clear tie-in to the objectives that are most important to the organization and the individual.
Weekly Reports should be 1-2 pages at most. Sometimes longer, sometimes shorter, but they need to be simple so they actually get reviewed and written consistently.
Don’t be a meeting martyr
Live meetings can be a valuable platform for collaboration, spontaneous problem solving, and brainstorming. That said, meetings can’t (and shouldn’t) be the default mechanism for keeping your team engaged and organized.
“When [executives] sacrifice their own time and well-being for meetings, they assume they’re doing what’s best for the business—and they don’t see the costs to the organization,” says Leslie A. Perlow in Harvard Business Review. “They overlook the collective toll on productivity, focus, and engagement.”
Instead of thinking about how you’re going to cram another meeting into your calendar that’s already full, take a step back and consider whether these meetings really need to exist.
As Perlow points out, time is zero-sum: “Every minute spent in a wasteful meeting eats into time for solo work that’s equally essential for creativity and efficiency.”
“This meeting could’ve been an email” isn’t a cynical joke—it’s the key to a happy, productive team.