Why silent meetings make a lot of sense

'It keeps that meeting concise and on time, and respectful of all your attendees time'

Why silent meetings make a lot of sense

“I'm always keen to find the best way to bring people together and work together to get stuff done, and build a better company. And [you] can't do that if you're always fearful of changing stuff.”

That’s James Gill discussing the concept of “silent meetings.”

As co-founder and CEO of GoSquared, a SAAS company focused on marketing automation, live chat, and real-time analytics, he’s seen success in taking this approach on a weekly basis.

“There's often a lot of wasted time in meetings, and there's often a lot of meetings that don't even need to happen. And so, as a team leader and founder, I view it as my job to try and protect everyone's time as best as possible, and try to make sure the meetings we do have are as valuable as possible.”

So, what’s involved with a silent meeting? Essentially, everyone submits their notes ahead of time and when the meeting starts, the leader gives a short introduction and then people sit quietly for five to 10 minutes to review the notes before engaging in discussion.

“The whole meeting doesn't necessarily have to be silent, but it definitely can be leveraged as a way to keep people on track, keep people focused, have everybody contribute as one, generate more ideas and higher quality ideas in that timeframe,” says Liana Kreamer, doctoral candidate in organizational science at the University of North Carolina.

And while Gill admits it does feel “weird” at first to sit in silence, people get used to it, he says.

“What it does is leave the rest of the time together to be more focused on discussion and clarifying thing and questioning things. That’s the actual purpose of everyone getting together at the same time, because if it's just information being given out, then it's questionable how much a meeting is needed for that.”

Tangerine Bank recently decided it would have days with no formal meetings.

Downsides to traditional meetings

While not used for all their meetings, the silent meetings came about after frustrations emerged when the GoSquared team moved to fully remote during the pandemic.

“It wasn’t really working for a number of reasons,” says Gill. “Some people would speak more than others, and so that was sometimes frustrating because someone might go on and on and on, or someone might not speak anywhere near enough, and you'd want to hear more from them. And often the actual facts or ideas that may have been very good were lost with the abilities for certain people to present over Zoom.”

Some people would also write out a lot of notes for the meeting ahead of time, and they would then try to share them on the call, he says.

“Then people would be listening, but not necessarily digesting all of that information… And we'd always have this section at the end, which was like Q&A where people could ask questions, clarify things, and that bit almost always got so late into the session that we rarely had time for it. And that was often where there was a lot of juicy info or answers or clarification.”

Two years into the pandemic, nearly a quarter of American remote workers (23%) said their Zoom fatigue was higher than it’s ever been.

Other downsides to the older approach: People checking out and multitasking, side conversations, straying off course, or feeling pressured to conform to the boss’s ideas, according to Kreamer.

Power dynamics can also be problematic, she says.

“Some people are more extroverted, some people are more introverted, some people are more dominant; and so those that maybe are more introverted have very creative ideas but maybe they're not voicing them because they can’t get a word in. Those that are more extroverted can dominate the discussion and even fall victim to [falling] for the first idea or the most opinionated idea.”

Meetings about idea generation can often run over because everybody is contributing their thoughts one at a time, whereas with a silent meeting, everybody contributes simultaneously and then the meeting leader organizes the submissions for feedback, says Kreamer.

“It keeps that meeting concise and on time, and respectful of all your attendees time.”

By having people submit notes ahead of time, people also do a better job of condensing and clarifying their ideas, says Gill.

“By going written form as well, it helps with reducing the ‘fear of missing out’ of not being in that meeting,” says Gill, as people can review the notes later. “It's quite handy for reflecting and looking back at things.”

Best practices for silent meetings

It’s important to note that this approach may not work for every employer or every meeting, says Gill.

“It’s really beneficial for when you're trying to get people on the same page. And there needs to be some gathering of info or insights or data ahead of time”

This method is most appropriate for brainstorming or idea generation, says Kreamer.

“If it's a typical update meeting or information-sharing meeting, it might not be as relevant.”

And if it’s for a larger group, it’s better for the meeting facilitator to organize the ideas that were presented silently and present them later, she says.

But the virtual environment is ideal for silent meetings, says Kreamer.

“It's maybe even more feasible in a virtual setting when everybody's already on their technology and on their device… maybe some of that awkwardness is taken out because you can mute yourself or turn off your video so you're really free to express and write down ideas without that awkward presence component.”

Anonymity can also be a good addition when it comes to people first submitting their ideas, particularly with larger groups, “especially if it's a sensitive topic or if you're problem solving and generating ideas. It can help people be more creative with their ideas and share more of their ideas if their name is not attached to it,” she says.

And with technology nowadays, people can use an anonymous form online.

“You sit down and look at what everybody contributed and no names are tied to those ideas. So, you strip away all of those power dynamics or status dynamics, and you just see all of these anonymous ideas and creative ideas on the screen. And then you can vote on what solution or what idea the team thinks best and you can even anonymously vote,” says Kreamer.

But for silent meetings to be a success, they definitely take prework, from organizing the ideas, form and process to informing participants, she says.

“It takes a lot of buy-in because it is a unique strategy… it can take some work on the back end.”

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