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Why banning Zoom meetings helped this business thrive

Emails and meetings are strictly off the agenda for employees at digital media company TheSoul Publishing, but how does this policy work in practice?

This article is part of our Going Against the Grain series, which tells the stories of companies bold enough to break business norms and try out new ideas. To explore the rest of the series, head here.

After more than a year spent working from home, the option to decline an invite to yet another video meeting would likely appeal to many. Almost everyone will have felt the exhaustion of yet another day spent in countless video meetings, while there are concerns over the impact of all these calls on productivity.

One company believes it has a solution. Digital content producer TheSoul Publishing is tackling meeting culture head-on. It has adopted asynchronous communication, one of the results of which is that internal emails and video meetings are effectively banned.

Explaining the decision, COO Arthur Mamedov says: “The initial idea was to design the business in such a way that it could scale easily across different countries. We also saw a lot of inefficiencies with the traditional way of operating.”

Mamedov believes that the urge to call a meeting before making any decisions creates bottlenecks in the business. This issue was exacerbated as the company expanded internationally, making it difficult to to find a time for face-to-face meetings that suited people in multiple time zones.

With 2,100 employees across 70 countries, the need for a more efficient means of communication became vital.

“We looked at ways we could redesign the company to accommodate fewer meetings,” Mamedov says. “We found that asynchronous communication and remote working were a natural fit.”

While many people will be familiar with synchronous, face-to-face meetings, asynchronous communication differs in the fact that both parties don’t need to be present at the same. In the case of TheSoul Publishing, one person will ask a series of questions and the second will then have time to formulate their response in writing, rather than as a conversation.

The Cyprus-headquartered company has been developing its new communication policy since 2015. This has culminated in a two-page manual that describes how staff should interact with other team members. 

Although meetings are heavily discouraged, it is possible to arrange one but only in exceptional circumstances. For a meeting to go ahead, a detailed meeting agenda must be written 24 hours in advance, only two people can attend and they must last no longer than half an hour.

“This makes meetings technically possible, but quite scarce because it takes so much time and energy to request one,” Mamedov says. “The whole process is designed in such a way that you would very rarely request one.”

Transparency is key

Ensuring the meetings ban doesn’t disrupt the running of the business relies on making communication across teams much more transparent. This has resulted in the banning of another common workplace annoyance – the internal email.

Mamedov explains: “Emails are often between two people and there’s no way to ensure that the entire team has meaningful access to this information. We don’t encourage any interactions that cannot be shared with the whole team in an efficient manner.”

Instead, the company uses a range of tools to keep team members updated on the progress of work. For example, a corporate wiki acts as a reference point and place to store documents, while project management tools such as Asana help to keep teams focused on the task at hand.

“There is barely a need for video meetings in that environment,” Mamedov adds.

Messaging tools such as Slack are used but discussions are encouraged to happen on the platform’s group communication channels so everyone can stay up to date. Private messages are only used for personal conversations, such as wishing someone a happy birthday, according to Mamedov.

The no-meeting policy stretches right to the top of the company, with board meetings also coming under the ban. “Sometimes board members speak one-to-one on Zoom but almost no decisions require validation from the entire board, as we want to be more agile,” Mamedov says.

Maintaining company culture

Despite reports of Zoom fatigue causing employees to feel drained, online meetings have remained one of the few ways for employees to keep in touch with each other throughout the pandemic. 

However, Mamedov does not believe this form of interaction is necessary for building team spirit and a company culture. “People manage to build very deep professional connections, regardless of being in the same room,” he says. “Look at interactions that happen at the community level on Reddit, for example. People regularly build meaningful relationships with others on that platform without ever talking face-to-face.”

This doesn’t mean that employees never have an opportunity to meet up. The company hosted a get-together in Cyprus to celebrate 15 years of the business, with 600 employees flying in for the event. “A lot of people were able to see each other for the first time, even though they had been working together for years, which was beautiful,” says Mamedov.

As travel restrictions lift, there are hopes that these company-wide celebrations can happen on an annual basis.

Although a ban on meetings may not suit every organisation, Mamedov is confident that a similar communication philosophy could be adopted by most IT-driven businesses. 

As a result of its no-meetings policy, he claims the company is more efficient and happier. “When everyone is able to do what they are best at, rather than getting bored at meetings, it really changes how teams appreciate their daily work. It’s a game changer, from what I’ve observed so far.”

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