Silent meetings: Do they work?

HR leaders discuss the pros and cons of one of the newest trends in the tech space

Silent meetings: Do they work?

With HR leaders focused on boosting engagement, it may seem antithetical to suggest a meeting without communication.

But silent meetings are all the rage in the tech space. California heavyweights like Google, LinkedIn, Twitter and Block are just of the firms that have reportedly adopted the practice. Amazon popularized the process, with Jeff Bezos being credited with the unique approach as far back as a decade ago.

Here’s how it worked at the e-commerce juggernaut, according to a Fortune report.

At the start of said meeting, senior executives were handed a six-page printed memo to read in total silence for as long as a half hour. Execs are encouraged to scribble notes in the margins that they can share once everyone is finished reading and the discussion begins. In silent meetings at other companies, employees jot down ideas, questions and comments in a virtual document shared by all attendees.

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The benefits of this library-like process fall in the diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) wheelhouse. Research shows that during a typical six-person meeting, the same two people will speak more than 60% of the time, according to Leigh Thompson, J. Jay Gerber Professor of Dispute Resolutions and Organizations in the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.

“Inclusive meeting practices, such as this, really enable all associates to contribute in equitable and meaningful ways,” Jenna Eichberg, chief people officer of HungerRush, a Houston-based tech firm targeting the restaurant industry, told HRD.

“It provides a channel for more diverse points of view rather than the person with the loudest voice, most courage and/or person in the physical room to be the only one heard. Practices like this provide for more engagement, especially in the hybrid world we live in today. It also enables teams to be more intentional about how they use their time together and prioritize the topics for discussion.”

Other examples of inclusive meeting practices that Eichberg recommends are leveraging technology, such as using the raising your hand functionality or encouraging use of chat; ensuring everyone has their video on regardless of if they are virtual or in the room; carving out time in meetings for round table so you can go around the room and provide a time for everyone to share/provide updates; and having a different associate facilitate each meeting so everyone gets a turn to lead the discussion.

“Many people find it defeating to be part of a meeting where their voice isn’t heard or their opinions aren’t sought after, but this new style of meeting encourages inclusivity and that always increases engagement,” Kimberly Perryman, vice president of people at Virtana, told HRD. An emerging player in Silicon Valley, Virtana provides an AI-powered, multi-cloud management platform. More than 150 companies rely upon the platform, including Apple, GEICO, Costco and Hyundai.

“Good meeting etiquette is being mindful of everyone’s time, ensuring that everyone has a chance to be heard and that when contributing, the speaker is truly being heard and their ideas are respected,” Perryman says. “It's important to create a safe space for the collaboration of all ideas.”

Rhys Black, head of workplace design at Oyster, a global employment platform, agrees with HR leaders that silent meetings are a good way to foster inclusivity of opinion.

“It has become common for people to share async docs with thoughts/discussions; however, that relies on the others involved taking the time out of their day to engage fully with the doc for it to be a productive exercise,” Black told HRD. “Getting people to do written-first communication but on a live call forces the undivided attention of the individuals required.”

Playing devil’s advocate, though, Black doesn’t think that commenting on a doc necessarily equalizes the playing field. “This all fundamentally comes down to confidence to speak up, whether verbally or writing,” he says. “Anecdotally, I would say that the people that are reluctant to speak up verbally in meetings are also less likely to give their thoughts in written format, too. So, if switching to written communication is a symptom more than the fundamental driver of lack of engagement, it might be worth tackling that first.”

If you want to experiment with a silent meeting, Black suggests following this template. Send out the async doc via email at least 48 hours before the meeting. The aim of the doc is to state the problem, potential solutions, suggested solutions and the deadline for a decision. That way everyone coming into the meeting is aware of everything and the meeting becomes more of a sign-off exercise rather than a live exercise.

“It’s quite unnerving the number of business-critical decisions that are made at the same time as learning what the problem actually is,” Black says. That said, there is certainly a place for meetings that require live collaboration. In that case, an async doc can still be sent around but without the ‘solution’ sections as these will be done live to maximize on the creative energy of people coming together to solve a common problem.”

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