Photo taken as the sun is setting over the Skyrun course on 20 November 2021.

The past 18 months has caused immense meeting fatigue for most of us. For some, it’s at the point where we have to schedule bathroom breaks into our 8-5 back-to-backs. Remote work has made us more efficient at some things, but do we see more efficient meetings emerge? We’ve realised it’s not all about efficiencies – sometimes, we have to pause and let relationships “happen”. Relationship building has become even harder in a remote-first world. In this post, we share a simple concept to keep in mind that should help balance efficient meetings and relational connections.

A story of endurance

In November this year, there was an ultramarathon event in a very remote part of South Africa. It’s aptly named the Sky Run because of the altitude at which most of the running is done. Athletes self-navigate their way over 100km of rugged terrain with an opportunity to refuel only once – they have to carry all other supplies with them. The weather was particularly favourable for the 283 runners who started on Saturday morning at 4:00, with estimated temperatures ranging from 23 degrees to -1. Of the 197 individuals who crossed the finish line, most will do so during the cold hours of the early morning – finishing times for this event range from 12 hours to 30 hours.

When training for endurance events such as these, you quickly realise each runner has their own strategy. However, there are predominantly two types of training an athlete would need to do. Low-intensity training (below what is referred to as your aerobic threshold) is your relaxed, conversational pace training – this teaches your body to burn fat. The body has comparatively large amounts of fat stores and can keep going at this pace for very long. High-intensity training (above your anaerobic threshold) is your high heart rate stuff – in this zone, your body burns carbohydrates (i.e. sugar). Compared to fat stores, carbohydrate stores are tiny, and your body burns through this quite quickly.

There is a dead zone or grey zone between the two thresholds (the aerobic and anaerobic threshold). This is where your body is a bit confused; it’s switching between fat burning and sugar burning and doing neither of them particularly well. Most athletes will recommend avoiding this type of training. Instead, a holistic efficient training program will include a mix of low-intensity training and high-intensity training and very little “deadzone” training.

efficient meetings

Now, onto efficient meetings

When we conduct meetings, it’s helpful to keep the endurance analogy in mind. Think about low-intensity training as the relationship element of meetings – our organisations are built on relationships, which is as important as always, if not more so in a remote work world. Then there are high-intensity training sessions – these are the meetings with structured agendas, action items and accountable parties.

The “low-intensity” elements in meetings are relaxed, conversational-pace types of engagements. Structured agendas don’t hold up well in these engagements – we want people to explore. Sometimes it’s about exploring each other’s stories – understanding another person’s story provides context and builds trust over time. Other times it’s about exploring ideas, where we throw out 100 ideas, and one might work. Irrespective, it’s a safe space to explore. Note: Low intensity does not mean a lack of engagement. Engagement is always necessary!

The “high-intensity” elements are action-oriented, with task lists and deadlines. As a result, decisions are made quickly, captured accurately, and individuals are held accountable for their commitments.

Both types of engagements are crucial. But too many of our meetings are in the in-between deadzone – it’s not relational enough that we can relax, but it’s also not action-oriented enough to be productive.

What prevents efficient meetings, and how to solve it

The training zone referred to as the deadzone is comfortable. It’s not fast enough to be exhausting and make us want to pass out afterwards; yet it’s still fast enough to give us a good workout. We know and understand the pace, and we stick to it, irrespective of how inefficient it might be. And then we become efficient in our inefficiency.

To alleviate that frustration, be explicit about these two types of meetings. Keep “low-intensity” meetings as relational – grab a coffee or a meal, create a bond over non-work topics, and inquire about the motivating factors behind behaviours. Next steps and follow-ups are still applicable, but not the aim of the meeting. Keep “high-intensity” meetings execution-focused – ensure someone notes actions and decisions, follows up on last week’s actions, and keeps engagements short. Relationship and trust are still applicable, but not the aim of the meeting.

Efficiency is not about having only high-intensity meetings. It’s about getting the mix of high-intensity and low-intensity right, whilst not sacrificing engagement in any of them.

If you have questions, we’re always keen for coffee.

Get in touch so that we can brainstorm a few solutions together!

Fry The Big Fish Newsletter

Sign up here for regular inspiration and advice to do less and achieve more. We explore methodologies like Objectives and Key Results and share some of our insights every month.

Want advice on how to do less and achieve more?

We send out a monthly note to share some of our wisdom. This is what some readers have told us:

Superb.” “Super practical.” “Always of value.

These principles extend to beyond work.

Hands down the best newsletter I’ve read.

Sign up below to join them.

send me inspiration and advice