How Notion Innovated Its Way Out of Meetings Purgatory
When David Tibbitts first started working at Notion in 2018, meetings were somewhat of a rarity. As one of only 10 employees, there wasn’t a whole lot that couldn’t be worked out by rolling his chair over to someone’s desk or sending a quick Slack message in the company’s “General” channel (for a long time, their only channel).
Editor's Note: The following article is an excerpt from our book Better Meetings Every Time: The Secret to More Productive Meetings in a Digital World. You can access the entire book here.
David joined the company on the Customer Experience side, learning what customers found both delightful and frustrating. Today, he’s the product marketing manager responsible for the core Notion product (but many folks refer to him as the Santa Clause of software). In his role, he gets to package up the work of the engineering and product teams and figure out how to roll it out to Notion’s audience of millions.
Along with David’s role, the size of the company has also changed quite a bit in the last three years. Notion now has over 130 employees spread across their new international offices in San Francisco, Dublin, Tokyo, and New York. All that growth has made it more difficult to resolve things quickly, and over the years, meetings have become more frequent in order to facilitate cross-functional problem solving and keep employees in the loop on major projects.
David remembers the early days of introducing meetings, which were much less structured than they are now. In particular, he remembers weekly Support Team meetings that sometimes went twice as long as the allotted time. “We would end up rabbit-holing on things like tagging for ticket types and get stuck for 30 to 45 minutes on how to name one tag. It was a lot of time spent on something that ultimately didn’t make much of a difference,” he says.
The last year brought a tidal wave of change to most companies, and Notion was no exception. One upside, however, is that the change to remote work motivated Notion’s employees to overhaul their approach to meetings. Today, David credits the structure they’ve implemented with helping them avoid unnecessary meetings that go over time.
How rapid growth – and rapid change – complicated communication
Prior to going remote in 2020, Notion had about 35 employees. At the time, the company still prided itself on having relatively few meetings. Anything that couldn’t be worked out in person was addressed virtually. With a “no email” policy, most work taking place in Notion itself, and just one general-use Slack channel, all online communication took place in a format that was indexed and searchable – and visible to everyone at the company.
When the pandemic hit, Notion’s employees were forced to work remotely and the option to communicate face-to-face disappeared. The level of activity on Slack increased by more than 50%, which made it more difficult for employees to keep up with the conversation.
Having avoided relying on meetings for so long, figuring out how to bridge the communication gap required flexing a muscle that, until then, hadn’t been used much. David describes it as a steep learning curve. While before, everyone’s calendars were relatively open, there was now a clear need to sync up in a more intentional way.
Avoiding the Tetris grid of meetings
Perhaps it’s no surprise that a company that helps teams document, streamline, and centralize everything turned to its own product for help. Notion needed to make changes that would allow the company to scale without gatekeeping information and overwhelming employees with a “Tetris grid” of meetings, as David puts it.
A Notion feature called Database Templates turned out to be the critical tool that allowed Notion employees to optimize their approach to virtual meetings. Using Database Templates, the meeting owner can choose from 15 to 20 meeting templates to structure and plan out their meetings. David knows all too well that as the organizer, it’s a lot of work to come up with the content and structure for a meeting. Using this tool now allows him to circumnavigate that mental load with the click of a button.
Adding this structure also helped avoid the kind of meeting sprawl that many companies fall into. David notes that he opens most meetings by saying “We probably won’t need the full half-hour for this,” and it’s true. With a clear idea of what the meeting is meant to achieve, and a solid outline for discussion points, there’s none of the rabbit-holing that used to creep up before.
Flexing the communication muscle
Having established a clear purpose and structure for meetings at Notion, it’s gotten a lot easier to ensure that communication elsewhere serves its specific purpose as well. As David describes it, employees rely on Notion and Slack to store all knowledge and collaborate on projects.
While Slack is used for synchronous, tactical commentary or to coordinate on decision making, Notion is used to document anything that’s canonical or can be used as a reference. Keeping information documented this way – in a searchable format – makes it easier for people, especially new hires, to find the knowledge they need.
David has also noticed that other teams are continuing to innovate their approach to co-working. The Engineering Team in particular has tried out a number of platforms that make it possible for them to work “side by side,” in a virtual environment that mimics the experience of working out problems in person.
Learning to love meetings
While Notion has avoided an “all meetings, all the time” approach by being smart about how they structure communication, David notes that he actually does enjoy video meetings, and would be happy with a 50/50 split between time spent in meetings and time spent doing work independently. “One thing I’ve realized about myself through going remote is that I’m a procrastinator,” he says. “I need a deadline to motivate me, and sometimes that deadline can just be a sync meeting to update people on where we’re at with a certain feature.”
He also notes that the best meetings have nothing to do with work or productivity at all. A long-standing Notion tradition has been the “Life Story” meeting, where one person will take 30 to 45 minutes each week to give a presentation about their life, their interests, and what shaped them as a person. David loves these meetings, as he feels that getting to know someone on a more human level can change your working relationship.
As Notion makes the slow transition back to office life, David is glad for the ways they’ve problem-solved their way out of a possible Meetings Purgatory.
“Going remote forced us to be comfortable with new modes of communication sooner,” he says.
“I don’t think we would have figured it out as quickly otherwise.” He also believes that having to coordinate remotely made everyone more empathetic to Notion’s new employees in international offices. In the future, there will always be the option to join a meeting virtually, as well as an effort to hold events that are entirely virtual.
Notion’s product is built on the idea that structure can facilitate empowerment and easier access to information. Now that they’ve taken that ethos and applied it to their own communication structures, David is sure they can handle anything.