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How to make your meetings better with asynchronous techniques

You might find you don't need a meeting after all

By Kate Zasada · August 26, 2020
Hero image of three people looking at a whiteboard with Post-it notes on it

Meetings, am I right? As the world has adapted to remote life, there's nothing quite as soul-sucking as seeing your calendar lined up with a day full of back-to-back Zoom meetings. Part of the dread is that you don't even know if they're going to be a good use of your time—or worse, you know they won't be but still feel like you have to show your face.

As a product manager, I'm used to spending lots of time in meetings to get feedback from my colleagues in engineering and design as well as stakeholders across the company. Since joining the team at Zapier, I've been impressed with how much thought people put into making meetings effective by being intentional with asynchronous preparation. Here's how we do it.

Instead of trying to manage your meeting action items manually, you can create and track meeting-related tasks with automation. Take a look at the best ways to streamline and track your meeting action items—without creating extra work for yourself.

Don't default to meetings

First: don't default to scheduling a meeting. Here at Zapier, we strive to collaborate asynchronously before we call a meeting. Only then, if we feel like a meeting is necessary, do we meet to discuss or make decisions.

It's not about never having meetings—I promise you we have plenty of them. But the next time you're thinking about dropping 30 minutes on the calendar to discuss, take a step back to consider all of the other tools you have to resolve an issue that don't involve meetings.

I'm not just suggesting an email or Slack message—sometimes those won't cut it as a replacement for talking to your colleagues. Instead, here are some meeting replacement ideas that are more efficient, can be done asynchronously, and in my opinion, are more effective.

Do a listening tour via video

You're taking on a new project and want to understand how your internal stakeholders are using the product. Instead of trying to schedule six hours of meetings across many time zones, ask everyone to send you a short video of how they're using your product—they can walk you through their process to get things set up and talk about what they would like to see changed.

My colleague Bethany did this exact thing when she was digging into Zap templates, Zapier's pre-made workflows.

Slack message with Kate

Why this works: Talking feels easier than writing, which is probably why we default to so many meetings in the first place. If you give someone a clear set of questions to answer, making a quick and casual video (read: no editing or obsessing over how it looks!) mimics that conversational feel.

The process has been made super simple with screen recording tools that can capture your browser window and a tiny thumbnail of your face with just one click. The video format lets you talk naturally and walk someone through your thought process, without the burden of worrying about the output making sense in written format.

The time spent is only as long as it takes to talk aloud about your process, and the receiver has a video they can come back to for reference if they have questions.

Make a demo video

You're launching a new product, and instead of calling an all-hands meeting to talk about it, you're sending an email to the entire company. It's hard to capture the nuance of the work you've done in words—and is anyone even going to read this long thing you've written?

Instead, you can embed a demo video into the email—a quick stream-of-consciousness walkthrough where people can see the new product in use, and you can visually highlight how it works.

Screenshot from a demo video Kate made where you see her face and her screen on the Zapier website

Why this works: It might feel high-stakes to make a video, but screen recording tools make it really simple. And it works for almost anything you might want to explain: walk people through a tricky bug, explain a new feature, or show how a new tool works.

It feels closest to just chatting with a colleague, which ends up being less nerve-racking than a big presentation anyway. And you don't have to worry about polishing a written doc or communication—people will expect it to be a bit less polished.

Tools to make your meetings more effective

We all know the rule that every meeting should have an agenda and a goal. If you decide you do need to have a meeting, try adding a third preparation step to your checklist: asynchronous prep work.

Pull some of the thinking and exploration out ahead of a meeting. That way, you go in prepared to do the work that is best done synchronously: debating, making decisions, reading the room for concerns, and having fun with your coworkers. Plus, after you do the prep work, you might even find you don't need to have that meeting after all.

Here are some examples of asynchronous prep work you can do to make your meetings more effective and valuable.

Don't let the scheduling take more time than the meeting itself. Try a meeting scheduler app, which will do the scheduling legwork for you. Then read these 7 tips for effect remote meetings.

Collect and vet ideas, then vote on priorities before you meet

A stakeholder sends an invite to talk about some ideas their team has for your product roadmap. Sure, you could accept the invite and then spend the meeting time telling them you'll need to talk to the team and do some research. Or you could save time and start your conversation by gathering the requests and researching them before you meet.

Coda template for triaging feature requests
This is an example of a feature request triage template from Coda

Why this works: A laundry list of features is hard to evaluate on the spot, and it's easier to collect the list, ask questions, then evaluate effort asynchronously. This allows you to come to the meeting fully prepared to make decisions, which is the best use of your time.

I did this recently working with our partnerships team to understand their requests for how we showcase partner apps on Zapier. Understandably they have a lot of requests from partners, so this was helpful to triage what was even in scope or technically feasible before we discussed what might be possible.

Before the meeting, it only took about 15 minutes of my time to jot down my questions—same for my engineering lead to do some light investigation of only the most pressing issues. It was much easier to go into the conversation with our stakeholders knowing what was even on the table from a technical perspective. And they had signal from their team on what the highest priority issues were. During the meeting, we were easily able to see each other's perspectives and make some decisions quickly. And we also have a document of the decisions for the future.

Have a myth-busting session

The replatforming project has been going on for so long that no one is really sure what we're trying to do here anymore. Is it true we have to make a change for GDPR? I heard that scope got cut, do you think we really have to do it? And the intern claims if we try a new experimental JavaScript library, we could be done in half the time.

Sound familiar? When the swirling misinformation has gotten out of control, ask everyone to put all of the rumors and questions they have into a doc and hold a myth-busting session. Before the meeting, ask the people who are deciding the scope or who can provide context to answer the questions—then, in the meeting, you have the opportunity to set the record straight once and for all and create a clear source of truth and decision on areas of confusion. You can also use it to discuss any lingering questions or schedule follow-ups as needed.

If the answers are straightforward, you don't even need to have the meeting, but I've found a lot of value in making a clear statement and allowing discussion to happen during these tricky and confusing projects. After the meeting, you can keep the doc active, and as new questions emerge throughout the project, you can have more sessions as necessary.

An example spreadsheet with columns for question or rumor, votes, ruling, ruler, and notes

Why this works: Rumors and misconceptions can be hard to squash on a remote team when there's no watercooler time, so this gives you a chance to clear the air and set the record straight. The format allows folks to share their hopes, fears, and rumors (which feels juicy and fun!) and gives you a chance to prepare for the conversation.

Big projects tend to take on a life of their own, so this helps you continue to clarify what's going on as things evolve and create a "source of truth" for the project. It can also help surface issues that need a deeper conversation to resolve.

Get real-time feedback on the effectiveness of your meeting

After sitting through the biweekly status meeting with your video off and secretly browsing Instagram through the whole thing, you get a message on Slack.

Hey @here - can you give me some feedback on if this meeting was useful, and if not, how we could make it better?

Screenshot of Slack where someone asks for feedback on how a meeting went, using emoji to react
My colleague Vicky uses this strategy after every big team meeting, and it always sparks a great conversation, as well as some big changes to our agenda over the months.

Why this works: It's great to check in with folks on if a large meeting is still useful or if the meeting has fallen into a rut. Slack reactions are a quick way to get a gut check, though you can also do it anonymously to gather feedback on what folks like and if they are getting out of it what you want them to.

By asking anyone who is not a green to share ideas on how to improve the meeting, you engage the meeting attendees to work with you on making it more effective, which helps them become invested in the solution and outcome of the meeting. Of course, you have to be willing to make adjustments and listen to the dissent—if your culture is less prone to sharing, you can consider an anonymous form, or ask folks to message you directly.

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A Zap with the trigger 'When I get a new lead from Facebook,' and the action 'Notify my team in Slack'