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Tech Careers / Tech Culture

Tech Works: How Can We Break Our Obsession with Meetings?

In the first installment of our new column about the tech workforce, Jennifer Riggins asks if we really need all those standups and status updates. Is there a better way?
Feb 3rd, 2023 8:30am by
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Image by Diana Gonçalves Osterfeld. 
Editor’s note: Today marks the launch of Tech Works, a new monthly column by longtime New Stack contributor Jennifer Riggins that will explore workplace conditions, management ideas, career development and the tech job market as it affects the people who build and run the software the world relies on. We welcome your feedback, and ideas for future columns.

How many hours a week do you spend in meetings? Go on. Look at your calendar. I’ll wait.

Your first response was probably “Too [insert expletive of choice] many,” followed by shock at how many hours you actually do waste in meetings. Because the tech industry has a meeting problem. Daily stand-ups. Retrospectives. Let’s jump on a bridge. Kickoffs. Ask Me Anythings (AMAs). Team meetings that could’ve been one-to-ones. Agenda-less meetings that should’ve been an email.

What started as a way to check in on isolated teammates almost three years ago has grown into a habit of being constantly on camera. Meetings spill well over their time boxes, not considering that colleagues may need comfort breaks or caffeine to endure — let alone time to do their actual jobs.

It doesn’t just feel like we’re hiding our yawns through more meetings. Scheduling app ReclaimAI found that there was a nearly 70% increase in meetings between February 2020 and October 2021. There’s no way that co-located water cooler time had that much benefit. We really are having more meetings — which means we’re working longer days.

Then, a couple weeks ago, Shopify became a beacon of hope, kicking off the year with a company-wide “calendar purge.” Calling meetings a bug, not a feature, the mandate is to cut any recurring meetings with three or more people. Any mega, 50-plus person meetings can only happen in a six-hour window on Thursdays. And Shopify has forbidden any meetings on Wednesdays, in order to foster precious uninterrupted time.

Is this the start of a welcome trend? For my inaugural Tech Works column, let’s figure out how to have fewer, better meetings.

How to Protect Your Own Time

“It’s one thing to ask me what I’m doing. It’s another one to ask me with the intention of taking that time,” said Jarrett Hill, a journalist, in a recent episode of his FANTI podcast. “I don’t like when people are asking me what I’m doing for the sake of them being able to take up whatever that time is — that evening, my day, my calendar.”

We rolled right into work-life fusion at the kickoff of the pandemic, but now we need to push back and recreate boundaries. How do we protect our time? How do we evade meetings when we really just want to get work done — or eat?

Some companies are trying to help workers set boundaries. At Spotify, colleagues are now encouraged to say no to meeting requests and leave large group chats.

That’s easier said than done. Still, it’s a hopeful sign that the industry might be giving agency back to the individual over their own time.

“I finally think the pendulum is moving towards more awareness on the role of meetings in the modern workday,” Rowena Hennigan, founder of RoRemote and a global expert in remote work and digital nomadism, told The New Stack.

Hopefully, this is a sign of a bounce-back based on lessons learned from the pager-always-on, developer burnout that clouded the early days of the pandemic. “Individuals are more aware of the need to be diligent in protecting and guarding their own time, to be effective and focused in their work,” Hennigan said.

People are beginning to ask the right questions, she observed, including:

  • Do we need a meeting at all?
  • I have a meeting request. Should I accept it?
  • What is the purpose of the meeting and where is the agenda?
  • What are the ideal decisions and outcomes of this meeting?
  • Who should attend the meeting to get the best outcomes and decisions?

There’s a growing awareness of time management and calendar blocking as a way to deliver it. I learned from remote work advocate Lisette Sutherland, to always put your exercise time right into your work calendar, and, for at least five years, my yoga classes have been as precious as any work meeting.

For Hennigan, it’s about taking the time to plan out all the repetitive scheduling that allows you to prioritize yourself, including marking your weekly planning sessions and lunch and other breaks as “repeat weekly.”

“People are less likely to simply offer up all of their time at work time to the potential of a possible meeting. Guarding and controlling that schedule is a key skill for modern remote workers,” she said, and really any workers would benefit from the habit.

This can also be only choosing to check your email only two or three times a day or putting your devices on Do Not Disturb. And by putting an actual blocker on your calendar to focus on a specific task or project, you can worry less about someone sneaking in a last-minute meeting.

Of course, there’s also those of us suspicious of Calendly and the like because it lets people put things on your calendar, usurping control over your schedule.

How to Protect Your Team’s Time

Maybe meetings are so inefficient because you haven’t invested in training your team on processes, tooling and ways to optimize communication. Almost half of the respondents to Mural and Microsoft’s just-released 2023 Collaboration Trends Report have left their jobs because of poor collaboration.

And this can’t be fixed with tools. While the collaboration tool market is set to double within a couple years, 47% of the people who used five or more collaboration tools responded that they still run into obstacles with effective communication.

That could be because three out of five respondents have never learned formal collaboration skills. Remote-first is the mindset and practice of treating company-wide communication as if it were remote — irrespective of whether you have just one or all colleagues working offsite.

Even in a typically collocated company, this honed and enforced culture of written and asynchronous communication avoids unnecessary meetings whenever possible and enables flexible work whenever needed.

Just like we do with DevOps, we should look to elite remote-first teams to learn from their years of practice. Certainly, the 100-person team, distributed across 35 countries and 15 time zones, that is building the productivity tool Doist is one of those standouts. This tech company reports a retention rate of over 85%, alongside continuous revenue growth.

Doist’s Head of Remote Chase Warrington attributes a lot of this success to “a strong stance against meetings, making them the last resort instead of a go-to activity.” Based on a recent anonymous internal survey, he discovered:

  • All team members spend less than eight hours per week in meetings.
  • 65% spend less than two hours a week in them.
  • 88% agree or strongly agree the meetings they do attend are a good use of their time.
  • Teammates have a 24-hour window to respond to any messages.

“About 90% of our communication happens in writing through Twist, our team communication tool,” Warrington told The New Stack.

“Everything from project updates to feedback to proposals occurs asynchronously.”

He added, “This mindset shift, from meeting-centric to async-centric, has positively affected our bottom line, employee engagement, and productivity.”

New Rules for Meetings

Meetings are expensive, both in terms of time and productivity, according to Sid Sijbrandi, CEO and co-founder of GitLab.

The all-remote company, with roughly 2,000 employees spread the globe, must wrangle time zones when it sets up meetings, so it must make them count.

On a December edition of Logan Bartlett’s Cartoon Avatars podcast, Sijbrandi spelled out how his company handles meetings. Pre-meeting written agendas are mandatory; notes are always taken, because what is actually discussed may differ from the stated agenda. Presentations are videotaped and sent to attendees in the meeting invite, but not usually given during the meeting itself.

Also, it’s almost a “badge of honor,” the GitLab CEO said, to multitask during online meetings.

“We think it’s a spectacular coincidence if 100% of a meeting is relevant to you,” he told Bartlett. “So it’s totally cool to do your email on the side, to do whatever you want on the side. It’s OK to say, ‘Sorry, I wasn’t paying attention. Could you repeat the question?’”

We wouldn’t feel like being part of a team without some meetings. But where can you start to cut — maybe without going so far as Shopify? On the blog of collaboration tool Slack, writer Deanna DeBara shared three types of meetings she believes should never happen:

  • Status update meetings
  • Agenda-less meetings
  • In-person by default

It’s always good to poll your colleagues to see if they gain benefits from those daily stand-ups and ask if they’d rather only check-in weekly or use Jira or Slack to work transparently and asynchronously. And all business- or tech-driven meetings should have agendas sent out in advance — try to stick to it and end five minutes early.

Of course, each team and its needs are different, so clarifying the meaning of meeting is important upfront. Remote teams should also create a team agreement, Hennigan recommended, “that includes clear guidelines on the purpose and focus of meetings, covering off the key criteria and guiding their team members on best practices.”

Some teams, she continued, also create best-practice checklists for remote meetings versus hybrid meetings versus co-located ones.

So tell us, how are your meetings evolving (or not) in 2023?

Author’s note: Interviews for this month’s column were conducted asynchronously. It shouldn’t have surprised me, but remote work advocates prefer written communication in lieu of meetings, too.

Tell me what you would like to read about in future installments of Tech Works. I’m on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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