When, at the start of the year, Shopify let loose a so-called “chaos monkey” to disrupt the Canadian multinational e-commerce company’s meeting culture, it was a shock to its 11,600 employees.
Initial panic – how would things possibly be achieved without meetings? – was quickly replaced by relief. And new data proved the move was a delightful surprise overall.
On Jan. 3, Kaz Nejatian, Shopify COO, posted about the calendar purge on Twitter. “Meetings are a bug,” he wrote. “To start 2023, we’re cancelling [sic] all Shopify meetings with more than two people. Let’s give people back their maker time.”
Critics who questioned the bold decision might wish to stop reading here. However, business leaders with meeting-heavy company cultures are advised to take note, given the overwhelmingly vindicated strategy shift.
Following Shopify’s enforced changes – including “meeting-free Wednesdays” designed to encourage focused work – in research shared with WorkLife in late March, time spent in meetings dropped by 33% per employee in the first two months of the year compared to the same period in 2022. That time saved will equate to a 25% increase in completed projects by the end of the year, the company has estimated.
Despite feeling initially blindsided by the chaos monkey, Deann Evans, Shopify’s director of EMEA partnerships and expansion, praised the decisive leadership of CEO and co-founder Tobias Lütke and Nejatian that has enabled a “more operationally excellent and faster” company. She argued that signposting changes well in advance, or trialing them, would have been nowhere near as effective.
“No one joins Shopify to sit in meetings,” said Evans. “They come to build the best products for the businesses we serve. The company realized that builders and crafters need that uninterrupted time.”
After the festive vacation, Evans was astonished that her work schedule was suddenly clear. “Normally, I’m in back-to-back meetings,” she said. “It made the entire company pause and work out what matters for our mission, which has been incredible.”
Forcing better ways of working
Evans estimated that 12,000 calendar events were deleted across the company, which has a fully remote workforce, at a stroke. “It was intense and uncomfortable,” she said. “I had to sit with it for a minute. But it made sense and felt liberating once Kaz and Tobi explained the rationale behind the chaos monkey. And while I was shocked on Jan. 3, because it was Shopify, in some ways I wasn’t shocked, as things move quickly here.”
Indeed, Lütke has launched several chaos monkeys – a computer-engineering term to test the resilience of a system – in the last few years. Evans said her team “reacted positively” to the most recent shambolic software simian. Notably, she has not restarted a weekly meeting with her direct reports. “We’re trying to force ourselves to be better at working asynchronously. What needs to be a meeting, or what needs to be work we can collaborate on?”
Evans revealed that because people are not waiting for meetings to make decisions, the speed of the process is significantly quicker than before. She added that, having shifted the approach to meetings, Shopify would introduce more tools and systems to support the culture, including a meeting-cost calculator.
Finally, she offered advice to other companies looking to evolve meetings. Most of all, be bold. “Shopify has shown that you can make this cultural change,” the London-based American said. “You need to take the plunge. By going an extra step than just piloting something, or trying it out, full immersion displays the commitment.”
She concluded: “Ultimately, it’s so important for companies to look at how much time their people are spending in meetings and ensuring that employees are allowed to do the work they came to the organization to do.”
Diseases of group decision-making
Ayelet Fishbach, a professor of behavioral science at the Chicago Booth School of Business, agreed that companies have slipped into inefficient and ineffective ways of working. As such, she welcomed the idea of breaking things up. “In particular standing meetings that are large – more than a few people – and take place online,” she said.
Fishbach stated that three elements – standing, large, and online – raise the likelihood that a meeting will suffer “from the main diseases of group decision-making: social loafing and conformity pressure.”
The former happens when workers dial down their effort, knowing that “someone else will pick up the slack,” explained Fishbach. And conformity pressure occurs when attendees “converge early” on a concept or plan that has been presented before people have considered all angles. “The risk is you end up with 10 people thinking like one person and amplifying each others’ biases,” she added.
More organizations have followed Shopify’s lead including Owl Labs, a company that makes 360° video conferencing devices – ironically enough.
“We adopted a similar approach and encouraged the whole company to conduct a calendar assessment at the beginning of the year before instilling ‘meeting-free Fridays’ to catch up on individual work,” said CEO Frank Weishaupt. He added that collaborative work meetings were determined and prioritized “around teams’ work patterns.”
The scratching out of meetings should create flexibility, freedom, and autonomy. But, Weishaupt warned, leaders lacking confidence in their teams might find the urge to micromanage in other ways irresistible. Above all, though, communication must be intentional.
“Our research shows that companies tend to replace in-person communication with email, as 25% of workers admit that their company relies too heavily on emails,” the Boston resident added.
Time for another chaos monkey, perhaps?