Why do remote meetings suck so much?

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In the last post about remote work, we talked about technical difficulties with remote meetings. But even when the tool works perfectly, you might find remote meetings harder than colocated ones.

Maybe it’s harder for you to find your moments to talk and listen to others.

Maybe you cannot see the remote folks very well to judge their reactions.

Or maybe the audio lag means people accidentally talk over each other.

You’re right. You are absolutely noticing these issues more often in remote meetings than colocated meetings.

I have some bad news about why, and you’re really going to hate it, so I recommend getting a cup of tea before you read this next part.

Matcha latte

Let’s start with an exercise.

Picture yourself sitting or standing in a meeting room. All of the other members of the meeting are arranged around the table with you. Check all the statements that apply to you.

Part A

__ I’m good at extemporaneous speaking

__ I usually have ample opportunities to share my thoughts

__ I don’t always have to think about what I have to say before I start saying it

__ When I start to speak in a meeting, I rarely find myself getting interrupted

__ I only need a little bit of information about a topic before I start to form an opinion on it

__ When I share my thoughts in a meeting, people usually listen

__ I think that my ideas are usually valuable contributions to discussion

__ I get to participate in lively debates about the future of our business, products, or people

Part B

__ I often start to speak and then miss my opportunity

__ I word my thought very carefully so I do not strike my coworkers as ‘abrasive’ or ‘aggressive’

__ I regularly get interrupted multiple times in a single meeting

__ When I share an idea, sometimes someone repeats my idea later without mentioning that I said it

__ When I share a thought, I usually get ‘devil’s advocate’ questions that challenge me or ask me to prove it

__ I think there are topics that my personal experiences do not qualify me to publicly opine on

__ Sometimes I watch lively debates, but I don’t feel comfortable or welcome participating in them.

__ I often leave meetings feeling disappointed that I did not have the chance to share my ideas

What I am thinking right now:

Part C

__ I’m starting to get an idea of what the bad news is.

Part D

__ I really have no idea why you’re asking me to fill out this checklist.

Great job! We’ll use your results to calculate your caucus score.

What the heck is a caucus score?

caucus (and specifically an unmoderated caucus) is a type of meeting with no rules about who talks in what order or for how long. Instead folks jump in whenever they have something to say. The caucus probably sounds akin to some of your business meetings: most teams consider this meeting setup ‘not too formal’ and therefore lean on it in some format.

How to calculate your caucus score:

  1. Add up all of your checkmarks from parts A and D.
  2. Add 9 to this total.
  3. Subtract from this total the number of checkmarks from parts B and C.

The maximum score is 18. The minimum score is 0.

You caucus score describes how likely you are to have a positive, productive experience contributing to a caucus-style meeting.

Suppose you have a pretty high caucus score—let’s say 14 or 15.

You’re questioning remote work because you’ve had more problems with remote meetings than colocated meetings. In colocated meetings, you have few qualms about taking the speaking floor and you usually have a positive experience when you do so. In remote meetings, you’ve had more trouble, and you’d like it to not be that way.

I have to bear some bad news: the way you feel about remote meetings is the way some of your coworkers feel about every meeting. The remote meeting isn’t the cause of the problem: rather, the unwritten caucus rule is the cause of the problem, and remoteness happens to exacerbate that problem to the point that even people with high caucus scores notice the friction.

What is the unwritten caucus rule?

See if you can spot it in this example:

Latifah spends a few minutes presenting her perspective on something in a meeting. Her points are well-considered, and it’s clear that she has spent time considering this.

When Latifah finishes, Alessandra asks a poignant question the perspective Latifah just shared. Latifah (caucus score 6) has thought long and hard about that question, so she takes a breath and pauses for a moment to compose, in her head, a coherent explanation.

Just at that moment, Todd (caucus score 17) pipes up with his half-baked ramblings on the question. Latifah loses her chance to answer the question she was clearly well-positioned to answer, and the room spends 4 minutes listening to Todd umm and uhh his way to his opinion.*

*I swear to god this example was written months ago and does not reference a particular instance. This situation happens so much that, at any given moment, it looks eerily similar to something you witnessed at work not long ago.

Sure, meetings should have leeway for people to figure out what they think. But Latifah already had a very well-considered answer to this question. Todd did not. Can we agree that, based on that information, Latifah should have gotten precedence to speak?

But in caucuses, it’s not Latifah who gets the chance to speak. Why? Because Latifah paused to consider what the last person said before she said anything.

In caucuses you can’t do that because of the unwritten caucus rule

The first person to utter something gets the floor.

That delightfully informal dynamic turns out to be not so delightful.

To wit: if you have something you want to say, you have to stop listening to the person currently speaking and instead focus on when they’re gonna pause or finish so you can leap into that nanosecond of silence and be the first to utter something.

The format of a caucus encourages participants who want to contribute to say more and listen less.

This is a big structural reason why people interrupt each other all the time. When the way that you get the floor in a meeting is to just start talking, that’s what people do. Sometimes the interruption is an accident because the interrupter gets excited and forgets that it’s not their turn. Sometimes the interruption is an accident because the interruptor thought the previous speaker was finished, but they had just paused. Kieran Snyder has done some fascinating work around who interrupts whom, and of course there are patterns. But how do we change those patterns when the unwritten caucus rule sets us up to interrupt one another? 

Imagine your largest weekly caucus-style meeting. Are there people at that meeting who rarely contribute anything? Or used to contribute more and now kind of…don’t? Or they seem (to you) to get ‘too aggressive‘ when people interrupt them? 

Bingo. The way you feel about remote meetings is the way those people feel about every meeting.

Now suppose you do not have a high caucus score.

This might mean that you’ve already experienced some frustrations with caucus-style meetings in general. Well, when you hold a caucus remotely, that only makes everything worse! Joy!

Remote meetings exacerbate the caucus problem to the point that everyone experiences it.

Take a look again at Part B of the caucus score checklist. You checked these boxes before assuming that we were talking about a colocated meeting. Let’s do it again for a meeting you are attending via teleconference:

__ I often start to speak and then miss my opportunity

__ I word my thought very carefully so I do not strike my coworkers as ‘abrasive’ or ‘aggressive’

__ I regularly get interrupted multiple times in a single meeting

__ When I share an idea, sometimes someone repeats my idea later without mentioning that I said it

__ When I share a thought, I usually get ‘devil’s advocate’ questions that challenge me or ask me to prove it

__ I think there are topics that my personal experiences do not qualify me to publicly opine on

__ Sometimes I watch lively debates, but I don’t feel comfortable or welcome participating in them.

__ I often leave meetings feeling disappointed that I did not have the chance to share my ideas

Did you check more boxes in this section for a remote meeting than a colocated meeting? Out of 9 people I tested this on, 8 did. The ninth person had checked all of the boxes in the first place and so could not check any more.

Why? Well, jumping in during a caucus requires precise timing: your utterance must be the first utterance after someone finishes speaking without interrupting that speaker. A single second of audio lag can throw off your timing, so you have more people talking over one another and then stopping to figure out who should have or would have talked first.

You also don’t have as much benefit of body language for conveying ideas, and you sometimes have to project further over a poor audio connection or a poor video setup. So you might be more careful to avoid accidentally conveying anger or frustration, which means reviewing your wording before you say things…which means pausing or slowing down. Which can mean losing your place to speak.

And if you’re not a likely candidate to jump in in the first place, or if you have poor experiences with jumping in, then when you find yourself in the off-timing-interruption scenario, you’re very likely to yield the floor to the other person—so you don’t talk at all. In a caucus, the person speaking often does not remember to hold space at the end of their statement for the other person who wanted to speak, so the floor is up for grabs again, and you can easily go the whole meeting without getting your thoughts heard. Then you leave feeling disappointed.

If those are the kinds of frustrations that you notice more during remote meetings, it’s worth thinking about the fact that those frustrations happen in every meeting for some of your staff.*

*including introvertswomen, people of color, and experts on the topic you’re talking about.

The Upshot

When audio/visual delays exacerbate the caucus problem for people who always get the floor in meetings, it looks to them like a new problem. It’s not new; it’s just normally experienced by people in meetings with lower caucus scores. Leadership doesn’t notice because people in leadership positions tend to have higher caucus scores, and being in a position of leadership also tends to boost your caucus score (basically because people interrupt you less). But that’s a weakness of the way we identify decision-makers: good ideas come from everywhere, and especially from people who do a lot of thinking and observing before they say anything.

Making meetings more accessible to remote employees doesn’t just make meetings more accessible to remote employees; it makes meetings more accessible to everyone. 

This is especially true for contributors who aren’t usually recognized as the ‘alpha’ in a meeting setting or who don’t self-select onto the speaking floor.

And fixing that problem can hugely benefit your business!

Remember earlier in this series, when we talked about how some remote work adaptations would come easily, and some would really suck? This is one of the sucky ones. It’s sucky because it challenges our assumption that ‘informal’ meetings are working just fine. They’re not working just fine: they’re excluding potential contributors. But those are usually not the people in charge, so the problems get overlooked—until remote work makes those problems problematic for everyone

The sucky thing about remote work is that it loudly points out the failures in your collaborative process. You can choose whether to pin those failures on remote work and halt your remote program, or to leverage your newfound insight into the failures of your collaborative process to your advantage—because now you know where to improve.

Can we agree that excluding potential contributors in meetings is an obstacle to success? Why wouldn’t you want to gather additional perspectives and make your decisions based on as much information as possible? The solution, it turns out, has nothing to do with remote work itself. The solution is to address the underlying issue: the way we hold meetings. When we address those issues directly, remote meetings feel less stressful—but also, even if you never hold another remote meeting again, in person meetings will achieve better results.

An Opportunity to Reflect

At the end of our second blog post in this series on remote work, we did an exercise that gave you a chance to write down your feelings about remote work. If you still have that, now is an excellent time to grab it.

Take a look at how you answered that first question about your physical reaction to the idea of remote work. Do a body scan. Are you doing any of that stuff right now? Try taking a deep breath, holding it for a second, and then slowly letting it out. (Sometimes when I’m having a really rough day, I do this nine more times. And each time I exhale I picture all my struggles and commitments being pushed backwards by the force of my breath into a semicircle in front of me, leaving me space to think). Or you can go from the top of your body to the bottom: for each body part, tense it as hard as you can for a second or two, then relax it. Jaw. Hands. Arms. Shoulders. Chest. Stomach. Rear. Legs. Feet. See if this helps you feel better. (Or if it doesn’t and something else does, let me know what works for you in the comments).

Now, let’s look at how you answered the second question about what you’re afraid will happen with a remote team. Do you see any of that coming up in our discussion of remote meetings? Does the caucus problem, exacerbated by remoteness, play a role in any of your fears?

Finally, let’s look at how you answered the third question about your negative experiences with remote work. What were those experiences? Did any of them have to do with remote meetings? Can you connect this caucus problem, exacerbated by remoteness, to any of your sour experiences from past remote engagements?

In the next post on this topic, we discuss some alternatives to address the caucus problem. And those alternatives can improve your colocated meetings—not just your remote ones.

If you found this post challenging but you still appreciated it, check out:

Making Room for Anger and Sadness in the Workplace

“Smart” is Not a Hiring Criterion

Michael Lopp Serves All the Cantankery, to My Extreme Glee

To read about other ways remote work sucks, check out:

Why do large companies keep abandoning remote work?

If remote work is so awesome, why does it make my job harder?

Why are there always technical problems in remote meetings?

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