Discover when you need a meeting and when to work async. Then, get 8 alternatives to meetings that give you back more time for focus work
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Imagine a traditional face-to-face meeting as a classic sit-down dinner party: it takes plenty of planning and preparation to get everyone to the same table. Due to the predetermined seating arrangement, it's also likely the conversation will flow in a structured, formal way—without much room for spontaneity.
Much like hosting elaborate dinner parties, highly structured meetings aren’t always the best way to get people together to share ideas. Instead, you could try more flexible and dynamic alternatives to meetings that don’t tie people to their calendars.
If you default to meetings to make every decision, you could be preventing your team members from getting into a flow state or doing deep work. That’s why leaders of highly collaborative teams need to know when to cancel meetings and how to keep moving work forward in other ways. This shows your team you respect their time and can adjust to their needs while giving them more control over their calendars.
In this article, you'll learn how to determine if you need a meeting, when async and synchronous working makes sense, and eight of the best alternatives to real-time meetings.
Get back more time for focus work.
Switchboard lets you move faster in real time or async with fewer meetings.
How to know if you need a traditional meeting
Done right, meetings can help you get on top of urgent and sensitive issues, build consensus and alignment, form relationships, and make complex decisions. But it's important to know when a meeting could be an email, or when a Slack thread should turn into a meeting—it's all about striking the right balance.
Often, leaders default to meetings when they can share and review documents, slides, or code async. After getting async feedback, you can then discuss and decide async or together—connecting in comments or meeting to talk as a group.
Using Shopify's meeting cost calculator, the company determined it was spending between $700-1600 for every three-person, 30-minute meeting. On top of cost, too many meetings can reduce focus time and make people feel like they have no control over their schedules, which can lead to burnout.
Asynchronous vs synchronous communication
Unlike synchronous communication, async working is ideal any time you don't need an immediate response. This includes sharing project updates, assigning tasks, collaborating on documents, and giving feedback.
Here are some real-life examples of synchronous vs asynchronous collaboration:
In software development, asynchronous collaboration is ideal for code reviews. Team members can review and provide feedback on code changes at their convenience, allowing for thorough analysis without everyone being online at the same time. When developers do decide to meet, they can jump right in and have more productive joint reviews because everyone’s already seen the code.
Yet in product design brainstorms when the team needs to come up with creative ideas quickly, a real-time brainstorming session can be highly effective. Video conferences or in-person meetings let team members build on each other's ideas in real time, which can foster creativity and innovation.
8 best alternatives to traditional meetings
Effective leadership isn't just about knowing which meetings to cancel and which to keep, it's also about knowing how to keep moving work forward in ways that don't rely on meetings. This helps free up calendars and gives people focus time and more control over their days.
Wharton psychologist and New York Times best-selling author Adam Grant offers a simple but impactful suggestion: "There are four reasons to meet: to decide, learn, bond, and do. If it doesn't serve one of those purposes, cancel it."
1. Record a short video
If your team needs to provide project updates, share insights, or present a quick demonstration, a recorded video lets people communicate at their own pace.
A short video can effectively capture nuances, complex instructions, and visual elements that may be challenging to convey through written messages or emails. Tools like Vidyard let you cancel more meetings while communicating the same amount of detail or visual information to your team.
But, recording a video isn't a replacement for sensitive conversations, complex decision making, and building team dynamics. It's also not the best way to connect if you need urgent feedback.
Pro tip: Use a Switchboard room to record and save videos so your team can get alignment on projects async. For example, you might record a quick video running through your product roadmap and add it to your Switchboard room. Once your product team reviews it async, they can leave feedback in your Google Docs document, sticky note, or comment thread attached to the roadmap. This means you’re always communicating in context even if not in real time.
2. Chat with messaging tools
Have a quick question or idea you want to share with your colleague? Instant messaging tools like Slack are ideal for informal conversations, quick updates, and building team camaraderie. For instance, your design team might create a Slack channel to share memes and celebrate achievements.
But, instant messaging tools aren't suitable for complex discussions or working with visual files and demonstrations. Also, while they’re intended to be async, they can easily turn into a distracting synchronous tool as they create a sense of urgency that leads people to feel like they should respond now. That means you need to be mindful of notification overload and the cognitive price you pay when you’re constantly context switching between tools and tabs.
3. Use project management software
Project management software like Asana provides a centralized platform for project updates, tasks, and progress. With all your project information in one place, everyone has visibility into who's doing what and when it’s due.
For example, while building your asynchronous work culture, your product manager might use Asana's Kanban boards to visualize workflows and spot any potential problems or bottlenecks. This lets you allocate resources effectively and ensure the team stays on track to meet deadlines.
These tools also have document collaboration capabilities, where your team can work together on shared documents and files and communicate via chat on tasks. This makes it easier to collaborate to reach project tasks and milestones.
But, project management software isn't suitable for things that require immediate attention or action, and might feel too formal for the quick, casual updates instant messaging tools allow.
4. Build an FAQ document
In any intranet or team knowledge base, you need a document that outlines employees' frequently asked questions (FAQs). This lets everyone take ownership of their processes and saves time asking team members repetitive questions.
These documents also make sure important information is consistently communicated, so you can keep everyone aligned. This makes them a great resource for supporting training initiatives and streamlining communication during company changes.
However, it's not the best tool for urgent communication, or for information that frequently changes and needs real-time updates. For example, code for software that's in active development.
5. Get creative with virtual whiteboards
"It's better to learn from complex thinkers than smooth talkers," says Adam Grant—and virtual whiteboards let you do just that. Tools like Lucidchart or FigJam help you express complex ideas like product designs, user pathways, and process mapping. You can customize your whiteboard with templates that make it easy to collaborate with your team on any type of project.
These tools are ideal for creative discussions and ideation sessions and allow for both real time or async contributions and edits. But they're not a replacement for structured document collaboration, where project management tools might be more efficient.
Pro tip: Add your virtual whiteboard to your Switchboard room, or use the built-in one, for synchronous or async design and development reviews. Simply sketch out your idea and get everyone brainstorming side-by-side or on their own time.
6. Send an email
Knowing when to make a meeting an email is vital for canceling more meetings. Unlike Slack, email is genuinely an async tool because people rarely expect a real time response and nobody can tell if you’re online when they send it.
Email also has the asynchronous work benefit of creating a written record, which you can add to your internal knowledge base for reference. Emails are also great for formal announcements and official updates. For example, introducing new hires to your product team. But, they’re less suitable for informal communication or when you need urgent feedback.
7. Explore different face-to-face options
Assuming it applies, face-to-face options like standing or walking meetings, meeting for coffee, or spontaneous water cooler chats are great for building connections outside the rigid structure of a formal meeting. Speaking face-to-face lets you more effectively interpret body language and nonverbal cues, so they're especially useful for nuanced discussions requiring real-time interaction. Plus, standing meetings encourage people to be brief as nobody wants to stand around for ages.
For example, a company executive might meet your director of product in person to review product prototypes or physical samples. This lets stakeholders examine details, ask questions, and discuss improvements face-to-face and helps inform their decisions.
Pro tip: If you can’t all be in the same place, set up a dedicated Switchboard so you can spontaneously check in with team members and give them some 1:1 time with you.
8. Use a visual collaboration platform for async teamwork
To unite people across different teams, departments, or time zones, you need asynchronous collaboration tools designed for flexibility and teamwork.
Async-first collaboration platforms like Switchboard give everyone access to a persistent project room that saves your work. This means people can hop into the host free room to check updates on their own time, so work can move forward faster.
For example, when working with a cross-functional team, sales can enter the meeting room and record a memo asking about product-pricing alignment. Then, relevant stakeholders, including product managers and pricing specialists, can ask Switchboard AI to summarize the memo and start a comment thread on the memo to give their feedback async. This lets everyone move work forward meaningfully because they're not wasting time setting up meetings or waiting for people to come online.
Meeting alternatives: save time and stay focused
Much like elaborate dinner parties, meetings require meticulous planning to gather everyone at the same table or time, often resulting in stilted or formal discussions. But always defaulting to meetings to share ideas or make every decision can prevent people from connecting organically, entering a flow state, and engaging in productive work.
That's why leaders need to know when to cancel meetings and how to keep moving work forward in other ways. For example, by recording a video, sending an email, chatting with messaging tools, or face to face. This shows people you respect their time and can adjust to their needs—while giving them more control over their schedules.
Plus, when you use a visual collaboration platform like Switchboard, you get persistent rooms where you work together in real time and async. This way, you can do more outside of meetings so you can make the ones you do have more effective—and cancel the rest.
Get back more time for focus work.
Switchboard lets you move faster in real time and async with fewer meetings.
Frequently asked questions about meeting alternatives
What can effectively replace meetings?
You can replace synchronous team meetings with async alternatives and share updates through: videos, instant messaging, project management tools, FAQ documents, virtual whiteboards, email, face-to-face meetings, or visual collaboration platforms.
This saves valuable time and lets you share information without organizing a phone call or booking a conference room.
How do you avoid meetings in the office?
Async collaboration is becoming more common across all types of work environments—including in-person, hybrid, and remote teams. However, even if you're avoiding in-office meetings, it's likely you’ll still have to attend virtual meetings. If you have too many of those, try replacing them with async alternatives to share updates and stay aligned. Contrary to popular belief, async works just as well for in-person teams as remote ones.