New Thoughts on Presence in Meetings

GitLab Remote Management Course

Its been two weeks since my first post in this series on my experiences taking the Managing Remote Teams Coursera course. While I intended to write more frequently, a personal move got a bit in the way.

Today, I’d like to briefly talk about how this course has changed my thinking on meetings.

My Prior Fundamentalism On Presence

Many years ago, I was involved in some contracting work with Pivotal Labs. At the time, Pivotal was both preaching and practicing a very strong approach to being present in meetings. Although we were very expensive clients, I distinctly remember my partner picking up a text message on his phone and the representative from Pivotal respectfully but assertively asking him to leave the room while on his phone. Laptop screens were closed and everyone had to be engaged.

I brought some of this fundamentalism with me to my teams at Nitro and a bit less so at Atrium. While the cultures of both companies made “laptops down” basically impossible, I did insist quite strongly on meeting presence.

My Presence Fundamentalism Is Incompatible With My Philosophy Of Meetings

In my README I expressed my view that meetings are for the benefit of the attendees and that my staff should consist solely of fully formed adults who are capable of making decisions regarding the relevance of any given discussion to their work.

What I didn’t fully realize at the time was that this is in fact slightly incompatible with insisting on 100% presence in meetings. GitLab believes that presence is optional, because they assume their staff consists solely fully formed adults who are capable of making decisions regarding the relevance of any given discussion to their work. This hit me like a brick wall and I realized that my previous approach may have been a bit misguided.

So, the quick lesson here is that I realized that I was wrong. Reflecting on my time at Atrium, and remembering many meetings where I personally was not living up to the standard I preached, I realize a part of me knew all along that the always-be-present-fundamentalism was flawed.

However, Presence Is Not Completely Optional

One thing to note is that GitLab’s advice is for fully remote teams with fully remote meetings. They do not even allow hybrid meetings were some team members are in a room and some are not. However, for companies were people are meeting in the same physical room, a complete lack of presence can easily come off as disrespectful to others in the meeting. So careful calibration is important.

Lastly, whether remote or not, one should never be the person who looks up from their screen to say something which was just said by someone else or which in some way betrays the fact that they were not paying attention. More to say about this another time.