Some meetings at top tech companies start with a half hour of silence. It turns out, these companies might be onto something.
Versions of these "silent meetings" are held by companies such as Amazon, LinkedIn and Square. Experts say this approach can lead to better meeting preparation and more succinct discussions. This tactic can even give people who are typically talked over a unique chance to be heard — including women, people of color, remote workers and introverts.
Each company approaches the silent meeting in its own unique way. At Amazon, six-page memos are prepared ahead of most business decisions to give every stakeholder the same level of understanding. Meeting participants won't speak until everyone has finished reading, usually after around 30 minutes have passed. In an annual Amazon shareholder letter, Amazon CEO and founder Jeff Bezos called this quiet time "study hall."
At Square, silent meetings begin with the group silently reviewing a Google Doc and using the commenting feature to ask and answer questions. This process takes around 30 minutes and helps the team identify key points that need to be discussed in person for a short, focused conversation, explains Square software engineer Pierre-Yves Ricau in a Medium post. The process, he says, gives "everyone a chance to be heard."
This method was brought to Square by former Amazon exec Alyssa Henry who was struck by research suggesting that some groups get talked over in meetings. This leads to a lose-lose situation where some people are disempowered, other people get talked over and the best ideas don't get heard, according to Henry. It's all usually unintentional, but "it sucks" all the same, she writes.
Using a Google Doc to track comments, questions and answers invites everyone, even people who didn't attend the meeting in person, to participate. "I want a culture where it's not the loudest voice heard, or the most politically adept, or the most local to [San Francisco], but the most right," says Henry, who leads product management and engineering for Square's products for sellers, such as point of sale systems. "I want a breadth of thought — and debate."
Ricau said the first silent meeting he experienced did feel strange, but quickly realized the group got more done in the same amount of time as a traditional meeting.
Square CEO Jack Dorsey agrees, and tweeted in support of the meeting style.
LinkedIn executives have also dabbled with silent meetings, reserving the first five or 10 minutes of some meetings to pre-read materials that will be discussed, according to a 2015 post by Brian Rumao, LinkedIn's chief of staff to the CEO. This cuts down on the amount of time spent talking about slides, he writes.
This approach doesn't make sense for every type of meeting, execs say. "Demo days and experience walk-throughs are a couple of examples where it doesn't make sense," Henry tells CNBC Make It. The silent meeting format is used instead for strategic planning and decision-making meetings, and most quarterly operating reviews, she says.
At LinkedIn, the practice isn't used for all meetings, either. Rumao says it's an effective way to kick off certain types of discussions, like strategy and product reviews. "It's a great way to ensure everyone has shared context on the content before we dive in," Rumao tells CNBC Make It.
Renee Cullinan, CEO and co-founder of collaboration consulting firm Stop Meeting Like This, says silent meetings can be beneficial for three reasons.
Setting aside time to read and think at the beginning of a meeting stresses the value of focus to a team. It also builds preparation time into the team's day.
The practice also recognizes that there are many types of thinkers, Cullinan points out. Some colleagues might think by talking an idea out while others might prefer to collect their ideas before speaking.
"One could argue that [other people will be] more thoughtful when they finally do talk, but in a traditional meeting, they won't have the opportunity," she says. "By the time they're ready to speak, the meeting's over."
Lastly, Cullinan says, reading the right type of written communication can prompt strategic thinking. With Amazon's six-page memos, for instance, the author has been asked to put forth a particular point of view and show more detail and critical thinking than the typical PowerPoint might require.
These methods, "force a quality of thinking," Cullinan says.
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