Why informal meetings shouldn't fall by the wayside
In this article, we explore informal meetings in depth, including why they are so vital to the health of your organisation, and how to make them work in remote and hybrid working environments.
With the rise of remote and hybrid working, the face of the workplace has changed forever. We are now much more accustomed to dialling in for meetings, or signing on for work from our homes, than commuting into physical locations.
And there are plenty of benefits to this. For employees, work-life balance is more manageable when working is location independent. For organisations, productivity is also positively impacted when you empower people to choose how, when, and where they fulfil their duties. But what does this mean for informal meetings? After all, much of workplace design in recent years has focussed on the ‘informal workplace’ and now the world has shifted away from continuous co-location dramatically.1
Arguably, informal meetings are a part of corporate life that hasn’t transitioned so naturally to distributed working arrangements. For this reason, they are often overlooked by leaders, and this has the potential to rip the heart out of their corporate culture, and derail the human connections that have likely taken years to cultivate.
In this article, we will unravel the topic of informal meetings, why they are so vital to the health of your organisation, and how to make them work in remote and hybrid working environments.
What is an informal meeting?
Despite popular belief, when most of us use the term 'meeting', we are referring to informal meetings. An informal meeting is any meeting which lacks the defining characteristics of a 'formal' meeting, including:
- A chair person
- Being carefully planned and regulated,
- A set meeting agenda, and
- Meeting minutes
Informal meetings are the regular 1:1s, the casual catch-ups, the coffee chats, the infamous 'water cooler conversations', brainstorms, weekly team meetings, and manager check-ins that are commonplace in every organisation, but which often slide by unnoticed. These interactions are the lifeblood of every organisation. They are where ideas are often born, developed, and brought to life.
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Why is it important to have informal meetings at work?
Informal meetings serve a range of important purposes in organisations, however perhaps the apex benefit can be summarised in a single word: Serendipity. Serendipity defines the unplanned encounters between two or more individuals in a positive or beneficial way. While this term has wide-reaching usages outside of the corporate context, it's value at work is unmeasurable and cannot be ignored.
Historically, serendipity took place in physical workplaces at the points of obvious intersection between people: coffee machines, water coolers, canteens, and points of entry and exit. However, it also happened through conversations that were overhead across office spaces, which often gave people the opportunity to step in, add input, or simply benefit from overhearing.
And why is serendipity so important? Well, often it is how ideas were developed and furthered, and also how strong bonds were forged between colleagues and collaborators, who realised their shared experiences and interests through these chance encounters, and developed friendships that existed beyond the realms of work. These deeper connections significantly enhance individuals' abilities to work with one another, and foster an environment of trust and inclusion, improving the employee experience and giving a greater sense of satisfaction and happiness in the workplace.
These points of inflection do not exist in remote contexts, with people physically distributed - often to the four corners of the globe. So how can leaders ensure that there is still opportunity for the phenomenon of serendipity to exist in remote and hybrid teams?
Informal meeting procedures: Making them work for your organisation
In times of remote and hybrid working, serendipitous interactions have declined for obvious reasons - after all, how do you ensure things happen by chance when there are no conversations to be overheard, or happened upon? Therefore, for distributed teams, it has become necessary to formalise informal communications.2
Whether this is a rolling series of random coffee chats, weekly team get-togethers, or team-building activities using jackbox games or virtual karaoke, venues in which informal communication can happen have needed to be designed and constructed very deliberately. And unfortunately, leaders are not always worthy architects of such structures. As a result, entire roles have been created in the remote world, such as Head of Remote Work.3 These individuals are charged with creating informal meeting procedures and ensuring that they are used and adhered to.
So, how can informal meetings be formally introduced at your organisation? The following are some helpful tips to help you formalise these informal ways of communicating at work:
1. Create open forums of communication
Nobody likes forced fun. And while informal communication definitely isn't all non-work-related, it's important for it to feel freer than your formal meetings. You need to empower your people to take charge of these communications, and create structures that enable them to do so. Having Slack or Microsoft Teams channels that are dedicated to informal communication is a great way to start, as well as setting regular informal meetings in your peoples' calendars so that there is a forum for these exchanges to take place. These can take the form of a weekly check-out, in which you share lessons, challenges, and personal life updates - or even plans for the weekend.
It's also important to give people guidance on what these can be used for, and leading by example. For instance, take charge of the first informal meeting that's in the diary and demonstrate how freely the exchange can be used. If your teams see you as a leader using these meetings openly, they will feel able to do so in the future too.
2. Establish KPIs around culture
Preserving your culture is important to long-term success, but without some form of measurement, it is difficult to know whether you are on track. Setting KPIs around your culture is a great way to set off in the right direction, and to measure your progress along the way. Including questions related to the culture of your organisation in anonymous employee NPS surveys is a great place to start, as it will give you a temperature check on how things really are. Also, by creating and communicating company-wide KPIs for culture, you send a message to your teams: Culture matters.
3. Invest in relationships
Informal meetings play a fundamental role in cultivating relationships among your people, which in turn enhances their ability to work together. If your teams only focussed 100% on work in their meetings, the output would be a very two-dimensional understanding of one another. Humans are three-dimensional beings, and the more that your people can understand one another, the better equipped they will be to work together. Therefore, you should use your informal meetings as an opportunity for individuals to share their experiences - both work- and non-work-related.
4. Give structure
While it may sound counter-intuitive, given that everything we’ve already covered, informal communications do need some structure. While your informal meetings will be more free-flowing and less planned than formal meetings, it is important that your organisation adopts some norms and structures that help informal meetings to still achieve their goals. Therefore, having a loose meeting agenda for informal exchanges, and still ensuring that informal meetings have an overall objective is imperative, and this ensures that they do not devolve into black holes for your people’s time. That said, do not allow this structure to make your informal meetings rigid. The goal of an informal meeting could be to connect with a new member of the team, or the agenda could be to check-in on a human level - and this is totally fine.
Informal meetings: Important tools for the architects of serendipity
Informal meetings are the means by which leaders can create serendipity in remote and hybrid teams, and they foster deeper connections between individuals that will pay dividends down the line. Therefore, while leaders might not always be the most skilled people to formalise informal communication in their organisation, it is essential that they acknowledge the need for it and find the right people to own these points of inflection.
After all, your employees are humans first, and serendipity is woven into the fabric of successful human connection - so be sure to create a space for it.
1 ‘Informal meetings are key to innovative ideas’, T. L. Desai, Mint, 2019.
2 ‘Informal Communication in an all-remote environment’, Gitlab, 2021.
3 ‘New roles created by the remote work environment’, L. Jones, Building Remotely, 2021.