I’m not the first to point out that productivity and efficiency are concepts brought to us by systems like capitalism and white supremacy. Through these lenses, our colleagues and staff are “human resources” whose purpose is to maximize output. But hey, we’re in the nonprofit sector, doing good, so that can’t apply to us right? 

At PTKO, we get unique views into the cultures of many nonprofit organizations. As more of the world has turned to remote work, even many nonprofits are increasing their emphasis on “efficient meetings.” We’ve seen that take varying forms:

  • Requiring detailed agendas – even when packed remote-work calendars mean that a lot can change in the weeks between scheduling and having a meeting
  • Requests for pre-reads before a meeting – while sometimes useful, in practice, we find that many people never read these and compliance is hard to enforce
  • Use of “productivity-enhancing” meeting structures –  structured templates (like POP Meetings) can add a lot of time and effort to preparing for more informal gatherings 
  • Mandating time constraints – while always ending on time, or using 25/50 min meeting defaults, can be “good meeting hygiene,” it can also cut off good discussions midstream

While many of these tactics can be useful in certain circumstances, rigidly enforcing them overlooks the fact that meetings are just….gatherings of humans. And on any given day humans may be:

  • Tired, run-down, or not operating at our best
  • Distracted by a sick kid, partner, parent, or family member
  • Focused on a project that is very different than what the meeting is about
  • Struggling with a concept or just need longer than teammates to grasp it
  • Dealing with a crisis on another project 
  • Coming off a busy day/week/month and not prepared for the discussion

Very little of this is predictable weeks in advance when a meeting is likely scheduled. In a remote culture where we spend countless hours on Zoom, I understand the instinct to be critical of “wasted” meeting time. However, “efficient” meetings can stifle the innovation leaders are looking to recreate virtually.

Be clear about the type of meeting you’re having.

It’s important to recognize that not all meetings are created equal. In a remote environment, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking of everything on your calendar as a “meeting.” But if you were in the office, a lot of that work might not even find its way onto your calendar in the first place! For remote teams, it’s important to understand the kinds of things that take up space on your calendar. Having been a remote company for 10 years, these are some the the “meeting” types we find work at PTKO: 

  • Working sessions: instead of status meetings, we often use semi-formal working sessions. These have rough agendas like: project status, data review, and discussion items. That last one is key, leaving downtime for the items that need input, discussion, or decisions in any given week. This flex time allows us to catch someone up if they’ve been out, explore a topic someone has a question on, or collaborate in real time to complete tasks during the meeting. 
  • Co-working time: for large projects or deliverables, we often block regular co-working time for key contributors. There’s no agenda, and it’s on the attendees to decide where to focus that day. It leaves open space for brainstorming, sharing ideas, or getting feedback on in-progress work.  Two people talking about a problem without the pressure of a formal meeting can nurture creative space.
  • One-on-one time: all members of our leadership team each have recurring one-on-one time with each other. No agendas, no prep work, no minutes. Just open time to talk about what is on our minds. These are often my most productive and strategic hours of the week. Similar monthly meetings between supervisors and staff leaves space to talk about feedback, career progression, or whatever comes up. This individual connection is key to building relationships in a remote environment.
  • Flexible standing agendas: we often use flexible, agendas that both cover recurring updates, but also leave space to address what’s top of mind. Our weekly leadership meeting agenda splits time between reports on company metrics, and space for “Identify, Discuss, Solve” time, where we prioritize topics in real time for discussion. Our monthly all-staff meeting is similar, with about half the time dedicated to company updates, and half reserved for Team Discussion that changes based on what’s relevant. These sessions are flexible enough to decide on the spot where we’ll focus, based on the team’s energy.

When to use structured meetings (sparingly)

I don’t mean to be so down on meeting agendas and structure. Detailed agendas, prepared materials, and runs of show can certainly add value sometimes. In general, they’re best for meetings such as:

  • Facilitated Sessions – These are any session that has a clear facilitator, like a workshop. Knowing the timing of activities, accessibility needs, and relevant materials ensures everyone can fully participate and you have sufficient time to get to all the topics.
  • One-to-many Presentations – These are sessions where one person is leading an educational session – such as a webinar, training, or board presentation. In this case, a clear plan allows attendees to know what to expect, leaves space for questions, and considers technology and logistics ahead of time. 

How do I know what type of meeting I have?

It’s great to know about the varying types of meetings, but how do you know which one you’re in? The one piece of governance that makes the above work is having clear meeting ownership. While the person that schedules a meeting might be a project manager or administrator, it should always be clear who owns a meeting and is responsible for clarifying its approach and purpose. That can be informal, like indicating it in the meeting title (e.g. “Coworking time for Muaz & John on Project X”) or including the meeting owner, type, and/or agenda (only if needed!) in the description. 

Clarity on meeting ownership and purpose can help stall the “Why are we here?” moment that too often occurs at the beginning of a session someone scheduled a month ago. But it also doesn’t mean you need a detailed agenda and attachments to make effective use of your time!

You are not a human resource

It’s worth noting that I jotted down the outline for this post at 4am, on my phone, from bed. I am certainly not an advocate for working when you should be sleeping, but I am an advocate for listening to the ebbs and flows of our mind and body. No matter how many times I block my calendar for “blog writing”, the ideas will strike when they strike, not when I scheduled them to. 

It’s hard to avoid living by your calendar on a remote team. But it is possible to be clearer about how we use our time, and also remain flexible with our colleagues’ needs day to day.