Inside the 'silent meeting'

Former Amazon director has brought the popular tech practice to his current employer

Inside the 'silent meeting'

Earlier this year, LinkedIn was buzzing about the workplace trend of “silent meetings,” which are all the rage in the tech space.

California heavyweights like Google, LinkedIn, Twitter and Block are just a few 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.

Steve Johnson, a 25-year veteran of the HR industry with experience at major brands like Coca-Cola and Amazon, can attest to its success.

The New Yorker spent seven years at the e-commerce juggernaut, starting in 2013 as employee relations leader before moving up the ranks to global director of Amazon Connections and employee relations and global director of associate career development.

Read more: Silent meetings: Do they work?

During his tenure, Johnson participated in many meetings where the first 20-30 minutes consisted of silent reading of a document, followed by robust discussion. “It’s an inherent part of Amazon’s culture,” Johnson told HRD. “I enjoyed the meetings by which we distilled ideas into a six-page narrative. Silent reading promotes understanding and ensures everyone starts the discussion from the same knowledge base.”

In Johnson’s silent meetings, participants were encouraged to scribble notes, comments and questions in the margins that they can share once everyone is finished reading and the discussion begins. In other variations, participants can jot down ideas in a virtual document shared by all attendees.

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.”

Read more: Is your company website digitally accessible and inclusive?

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.

Since leaving Amazon in 2020, Johnson has ushered the silent meeting into his other roles, including his current position as chief people and compliance officer at Chicago-based Bluecrew, a workforce-as-a-service platform bringing an app-based solution to W-2 workers. Coincidentally, Bluecrew CEO Stephen Avalone worked as a general manager and director at Amazon during Johnson’s tenure.

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

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 told HRD. “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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