When working in an agency environment, meetings are inevitably a part of the jobs we do. We come together to plan, scope, estimate, ideate, problem solve, pair program, demo, present, run retros, hold standups, present code reviews – you get the idea! With numerous meetings on the agenda, what starts out as an 8 hour day slowly gets chipped away. Meetings begin to disrupt deep thinking, they force you to push aside any solo work time you had, and eventually you aren't left with much time during the day at all. I think we can all agree that the current model for meetings is a little broken.
Around a year ago we realized this in a major way at Aten. Meetings had become a leading culprit for killing time, with direct impact on utilization.
The problem with meetings
Upon taking a closer look at the ways in which meetings were impacting our team, we discovered some key factors.
- Many felt overwhelmed by the amount of meetings whether formal or informal, face-to-face or electronically mediated.
- People were finding it harder to create momentum on set tasks because of the project whiplash they were experiencing when jumping between tasks and meetings in a given day.
- Productivity and utility were impacted. As the frequency of meetings increased, productivity rates decreased.
- Many were lacking time for solo work which is essential to creativity and efficiency.
These issues drove home the realization that while meetings do have a role to play in the workplace, it is far more important to manage meeting time in an intentional way.
Getting rid of meetings
We took these findings and decided to use them as a conduit for change.
Our original goal wasn’t to kill or reduce the number of meetings. They do often help us to get work done and make decisions. Instead, we set out to create interruption free days. We did this by moving meetings off of everyone’s calendars on Tuesdays and Thursdays, creating the time and space for deep thinking and solo work which we believed would resolve many of the issues that had been identified.
Since implementing no-meetings days we’ve seen an increase in the company’s overall productivity rates, improvements to the level of reported job satisfaction and a decrease in the number of reports of people feeling overwhelmed by meetings.
Like with any change effort, we’re still learning and evolving as we move forward with this practice. We'll continue to take stock of how people are adjusting to this new process overall. Any measurable progress we receive will be assessed and discussed. Any concrete wins will be celebrated, and any losses will be seen as a chance to learn and grow.
What does the research say?
In looking at the effect of meetings on our own organization, I became curious about the impacts of meetings elsewhere. The more I researched this topic, two things became clear:
- Multitasking is making people less productive.
- The hidden costs of task switching are bigger than you think.
Research shows that meetings have increased in length and frequency over the past 50 years. Now more than ever, people are trying to pack more into their workdays and in the absence of clear indicators, many turn towards an industrial indicator of productivity: doing lots of tasks in a manner which is visible to their peers/coworkers.
Experiments published in 2001 by Joshua Rubinstein, PhD, Jeffrey Evans, PhD, and David Meyer, PhD, found that switch costs can add up to large amounts when people switch repeatedly back and forth between tasks. For example, when you’re coding something, and you’re in the flow state, and you get interrupted, it takes 23 minutes (on average) to get back into the groove of what you were doing before. Meyer goes on to stipulate that even brief mental blocks created by shifting between tasks can take as much as 40 percent of someone's productive time. That’s approximately 3.2 hours a day, 16 hours a week, and a loss of 832 productive hours a year. Whether you’re an agency like us, a start-up, non-profit, or a fortune 500 company, this loss of time aggregated across a year is bound to have impacts on your company’s bottom line to some degree.
Not only do interruption-free days help to reduce the amount of task switching but they also allow for “deep thinking” or “deep thought”. Deep thinking was a term that Georgetown computer science professor, Cal Newport, used to describe the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. Working deeply is the best way to get more meaningful work done: in a state of high concentration while working distraction-free on a single task.
It’s also important to be aware of the type of work you need to complete across the week so that you create the appropriate working conditions. Newport describes the two main types of work as:
“Deep work” - Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill set, and are hard to replicate. These tasks are better suited for a no meetings day.
“Shallow work” - Non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These tasks should be scheduled on days where there are meetings.
By understanding these concepts and the impacts they have on individuals, work and productivity, you can empower not only yourself, but your company to work in smarter and more meaningful ways.
How to make no meetings days a part of your routine
- Examine the impacts that meetings are having on your company first. You may learn that it’s more a matter of quality over quantity.
- Adapt the process to suit your team set-up and style. Factor in how this would apply to remote teams, part time workers etc.
- Team buy-in is important. Establish and communicate the purpose and goals of having meetings free days. What are the challenges you’re hoping to help solve? What are the advantages?
- What are the rules? Which days are the no meetings days? Is this over a day or are there specific blocked off times? Is there some flexibility for team members to use their judgement when scheduling a meeting on the allocated no meetings days?
- Make sure you maintain momentum. It’s easy to fall back into the habit of booking meetings on no-meetings days. Try to nominate someone who’s responsible for observing the no-meetings days on the calendar and who can assist team members when questions arise as to potential allowances.
- Block off time. Encourage your team members to block out time in their calendars, which serves as a gentle reminder that meetings shouldn’t be booked on those days.
- Stop scheduling meetings.
We wanted to ensure that as a company we set a different precedent and created a culture where ‘single-tasking’ was more valued than ‘multi-tasking’. In doing so, we’ve been able to better maximize the amount of productivity we can get out of a workweek. Aten team members now have two days a week where they’re able to focus on single tasks, without distractions, in a state of intense focus. They’ve become an integral part of the Aten culture and many look forward to and / or feel energized by these days. We’d encourage you to try it out too!