It’s no secret that the term “pre-work” inspires groans, eye-rolls, and even — during that all-too-familiar moment of realization that you haven’t done the pre-work — a sense of impending doom. Because of this, and because pre-work so often goes undone, many executives have given up on the practice. It doesn’t have to be this way. By embedding pre-work into meetings and carving out the first five to 20 minutes to have participants silently review a thoughtfully prepared, action-oriented document, leaders can reimagine not just the concept of pre-work, but the very nature of how teams gather. The author presents five tips for adopting the practice.
You wrap up one meeting and scramble to find the Zoom link for the next one, sighing with relief as you click “join” just in time. But that sensation is short lived as you realize that you neglected to do the required pre-work: reading a document, reviewing a contract, or answering some key questions that are to be the basis of the discussion.
It’s no secret that the term “pre-work” inspires groans, eye-rolls, and even — during that all-too-familiar moment of realization — a sense of impending doom. Because of this, and because pre-work so often goes undone, many executives I know have given up on the practice.
It doesn’t have to be this way. By embedding pre-work into meetings and carving out the first five to 20 minutes to have participants silently review a thoughtfully prepared, action-oriented document, leaders can reimagine not just the concept of pre-work, but the very nature of how teams gather.
Cutting Through the Skepticism
When I first suggest the concept of setting aside meeting time for reviewing pre-work, many mistakenly assume this will translate into longer meetings. It doesn’t work that way.
Yes, employees are already suffering from meeting overload. According to recent research, 70% of meetings prevent employees from completing all of their other job tasks. Being mindful of this, and to better understand the practice, I recently reached out to a number of people who set aside meeting time for participants to review pre-work in parallel. Almost everyone I interviewed said their meetings aren’t longer. Instead, they’re more focused.
Aligning around a shared document ensures that everyone is on the same page — literally and figuratively — when the discussion begins. There’s no time wasted bringing people who haven’t done the pre-work up to speed or surfacing the inevitable questions that are easy to anticipate and address in writing. Just as important, it ensures that the time of those who do come prepared is not devalued.
Instead of spending time rehashing, debriefing, and otherwise dwelling on the past, team members can devote their precious time together to present- and future-tense verbs: Decide. Vote. Align. Approve. A verb-heavy meeting tends to be a productive meeting.
Putting the Onus on the Meeting Leader
Creating a document that’s thorough, thoughtful, and concise enough to share with a team is, indeed, extra work for the meeting leader. This is appropriate. Particularly when employees are suffering from meeting glut, the person in charge of assembling any group should have a clear understanding of what they want to get out of the gathering.
At a time when 11.2 million U.S. jobs remain unfilled, it’s critical for leaders to maximize the talent their organization does have. When a meeting leader invests their own time in preparing a document, they sharpen and clarify the purpose of the meeting and subsequently maximize what can be accomplished.
Think of purpose as a gatekeeper stationed at the metaphorical entrance of any meeting as the organizer arrives. If the organizer doesn’t have a clear purpose, perhaps they should reconsider whether it’s worthwhile to take people’s time. Embedded pre-work is a mechanism for purpose-driven meetings.
The company that has most famously embraced embedded pre-work is Amazon, where the first few minutes of each meeting (or even the first 30-plus minutes) are spent reviewing a memo that will form the basis of that hour’s discussion.
The memos, as Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has explained, are “supposed to create the context for what will then be a good discussion.” He added: “The reason we read them in the room, by the way, is because just like high school kids, executives will bluff their way through the meeting as if they’ve read the memo. Because we’re busy, and so you’ve got to actually carve out the time for the memo to get read.”
Memos aren’t just for executives. My recent conversations with those who regularly embed pre-work into meetings included a number of Amazon team members. Each said it was unusual to attend a meeting at the company that didn’t begin with at least several moments of quiet memo-perusing.
“We write because it helps us get clarity of thought,” said one employee, a technical advisor who works in human resources. “The person who’s called the meeting has done the pre-thinking and gathered the right data. That allows us, when the conversation starts, to jump right in and get started working through the problems.”
How to Create a Pre-Work Memo
Even for those convinced of the merits of this practice, adopting it can be tricky. Here are some tips for getting started:
1. Break it down.
In the business world, many people are more comfortable with PowerPoint documents than long-form writing. And so, while it may seem condescending to train employees on the art of composing embedded pre-work memos, this can be quite helpful.
Amazon has a guiding document specifying everything from font size to margins. This level of detail may be overkill for many organizations, but as best practices emerge, it makes sense to codify them.
2. Include an interactive component.
One way to inspire discussion after a period of silent memo-reading is to invite everyone to input their thoughts, questions, and observations into a shared document. Google docs, word clouds, or Mentimeter polls are helpful tools for this.
3. Explain the reasoning.
People don’t like to jump through hoops unnecessarily. It’s critical to ensure teams understand that the purpose of this exercise is not to create more work or elongate meetings. If anything, the practice should result in fewer meetings where more is accomplished.
4. Pair them up.
When participants engage with pre-work materials in pairs, they may be more likely to focus on the written materials. Each pair’s initial conversations can give the group a head start on the brainstorming process.
5. Print it out.
Some people take in material more quickly and effectively when they have a hard copy they can mark up with pen and paper. For in-person meetings, consider printing a few copies of the pre-work ahead of time for participants who absorb material more readily when they can hold it in their hands.
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By establishing a culture of embedded pre-work and communicating the reasoning behind this shift, leaders signal that they value their people’s time — and, by extension, that they value their people. And when groups of employees gather, that precious time will in fact become more valuable.