Careers advice

6 signs your meeting should be an email

Don’t be that person.

What you’ll learn:

  • The signs your meeting should be an email
  • The occasions that call for a meeting

As you trudge back to your desk after the fourth meeting of the day, where the outcomes could easily have been achieved through a short email, you’ll probably be thinking to yourself, why on earth did they waste my time with that?

But then, a second thought might cross your mind – “What if I’ve done that to someone else?”. It’s always very easy to tell when someone else’s meeting didn’t need to take place, but perhaps less so when it’s one of your own priorities that’s being discussed.

So, how do you tell if your meeting should be an email? If you recognise any of the following warning signs, it’s time to start composing rather than inviting.

Choose an email over a meeting if….

1. You’re giving or asking for updates

While it might seem easiest to get everyone into one place for a roundtable update on an ongoing project, this is in fact one of the most common meeting types that represents a giant waste of a lot of people’s time.

Yes, it’s important, when working on a project with multiple stakeholders, for everyone to stay in the loop, But a group email or an IM (instant message) will serve the same purpose just as effectively, without the need for everyone to disrupt their days. Alternatively, workflow tools like Trello can allow team members to find out at a glance where projects are at, and what other team members are currently working on.

Haven't prepared? Don't organise a meeting.

2. You haven’t prepared

Worthwhile meetings require preparation. If you aren’t walking into the meeting with a clear idea of what you’re going to say, why you’re saying it and what you’re hoping to achieve, then it shouldn’t be taking place at all.

It’s not good enough to have a rough idea of what you’re wanting out of the meeting, because you’ll need to communicate this to the group you’ve assembled. If you’re unable to do this, your meeting attendees will quickly realise that their time is being wasted, leaving you even less likely to achieve your goals.

3. You just need a couple of answers

If you need a couple of specific answers to questions, you’re much more likely to get this information from an email than a meeting, unless you ask the individual to come prepared with the details you need….and then you may as well have just emailed them.

Think about it – how many times in a meeting have you heard someone ask for something specific, a statistic about audience engagement, for example, only for the person, quite reasonably, not to know this off the top of their head? And what is the standard response? “I’ll look it up and flick you an email.” You see our point.

4. You need to give top line information

A key skill for leaders is knowing how to effectively disseminate information to their teams. As a general rule, there’s no need to be arranging meetings when you’re just trying to get across high level information for the first time – for example, a new strategic priority you have little information on. When that detail arrives, so too should well thought out meetings with the relevant stakeholders. Because, at this later stage, you’ll have some substance to talk about, whereas initially you’ll just be reading documentation to the team. As you might have guessed, this could go into an email.

By contrast, if you’re trying to communicate a complex idea, a meeting is likely to be much more effective than an email. Similarly, if you’re covering something contentious – for example, a restructuring, you need to deliver this information in person, as people will likely have immediate questions and concerns they want to air.

There's no need to get everyone together if you've only got top level info to deliver.

5. There are crucial people who can’t attend

It may be that you’re hoping to hear contributions from a variety of different stakeholders, all of whom have something critical to say. If you know, however, that one or more of these contributors won’t be able to make it to the meeting, you have two options.

Of course, you could postpone the meeting and wait until everyone is available. However, a more immediate and efficient option would be to ask everyone to make their contributions via email, so that everyone gets the info in a timely fashion. This is far preferable to going ahead with the meeting itself, only for attendees to come away with part of the information they need, but not the whole picture.

6. You just had a meeting about the same topic

When you’re leading a team working on an important business priority, it might be tempting to hold very regular meetings to ensure that everything is ticking along nicely. There are a few reasons not to do this. Firstly, you’re veering into micromanger territory, and no one likes being micromanaged. In addition, by calling overly regular meetings, you’re stopping the team getting on with the very tasks you’re checking up on. Thirdly, there’s no need. Instead, during the first meeting for this project, set deadlines by which you expect to hear, via email or IM, about any questions, comments or proposals the team may have.

So, when should you schedule a meeting?

A number of common situations in which a meeting is preferable to an email include:

  • To brainstorm: you can’t conduct an effective brainstorming session over email or IM. You need all the relevant brains in a room (or a virtual room) together so that ideas can be quickly and effectively bounced off each other, and participants can build on each others’ perspectives.
  • When key decisions need to be made: similarly, if you’re discussing very high level matters, you want to make sure that everyone is on the same page. It’s all too easy for meaning to be lost in a poorly worded email, so getting everyone together is crucial to ensure that you move forward together.
  • If the issue is sensitive: if you’re dealing with a tough subject – for example, a restructure within the business – this absolutely needs to be a meeting. These situations not only make it easier for you to ensure that everyone understands the salient points, but sending an email could be seen as cowardly if you’re discussing something like a restructure.
  • To bring the team together: it might be that the contents of the meeting are secondary, and the aim is to get everyone in the same place at the same time, which may not occur as frequently as it once did in the era of remote work. For example, many ‘stand up’ type meetings could probably be done over IM, if you’re simply conducting a roundtable in which team members update each other on what they’ll be working on this week, but you might decide that you’d rather do this face-to-face for team bonding reasons.