January 12, 2023
Tips & Tricks

The cost of meetings on tech team’s flow

Brenna Donoghue
Head of Marketing

I recently talked to dozens of Morgen users to understand their greatest hurdles when it comes to managing time. Without exception, my questions about how meetings affect their productivity were met with a collective sigh, often paired with a very distinctive eyeroll.

Some were frustrated by having too many meetings. Others worried their time was wasted in low-relevance or poor-quality meetings. But the common thread across everyone we talked to was not the quality or volume of meetings, but rather the way in which they are scheduled.

Why we need to address fragmented time

The rise of remote work spurred a corresponding increase in meetings. Software teams for instance, now spend on average 1/3 of their time in meetings. It’s no surprise that leaders are quick to blame time in meetings as the culprit for diminished productivity.

And sure, in some cases, they’re right.

But what tends to be overlooked is when all those meetings are scattered throughout the day and week, fragmenting focused work time and breaking opportunities for flow.

For instance, consider an 8-hour day with 3 team meetings.

  1. Scenario 1. Meetings are scheduled back-to-back from 9am-12pm
  1. Scenario 2. Meetings are scheduled back-to-back from 1pm-4pm
  1. Scenario 3. Meetings are scheduled from 9-10am, 3-5pm
  1. Scenario 4. Meetings are scheduled throughout the day, 10-11am, 1-2pm, 3pm-4pm

Each of these scenarios impact team productivity differently. Scenarios 1-3 all create blocks of more than 2 hours of focused time while still accomodating meetings. Each team will have different preferences however between these scenarios. Some may prefer afternoon meetings to reserve mornings for peak productivity. Others like to limit back-to-back meetings to 2 hours so they have adequate energy to contribute fully.

But the dreaded scenario 4, no matter which way you look at it, is an absolute productivity killer. On average it takes 23 minutes to switch context from one task to another. In this case, if someone also breaks for lunch (which we encourage!), they are unlikely to have more than 40-minute chunks of focused time – far too little to dig into deep work.

The consequences of fractured work time are known to almost all knowledge workers, but are especially acute for those in technical roles where deep-focused maker time is crucial for output and productivity.

How to assess your engineering team’s fractured time

It’s widely accepted by engineering teams and managers that flow time makes them more productive. This time for deep work is crucial to engineers’ productivity, effectiveness and satisfaction, yet few teams have processes to maximize it.

Keeping an eye on total time spent in meetings is helpful, but fails to paint the full picture. Instead, leaders should assess the percentage of time their teams spend in:

  • Flow (uninterrupted 2+ hour blocks of time)
  • Friction (time blocks that are <2 hours between meetings)
  • Meetings
  • Overflow (time outside of working hours completing tasks)  

These metrics, when considered together, will help leaders and teams identify how their meeting schedules impact overall productivity.

Quick wins that reduce time fragmentation

By default, when scheduling meetings, most of us simply look for an open spot in the calendar and send out the invite. We probably consider when it’s most convenient for ourselves. But rarely are we deliberate about maximizing collective maker time.

To do so takes a mindset shift to look at team energy and time as a shared resource. When we invite someone to a meeting, not only should we consider whether it is a good use of their time and energy to attend, but also when to time the meeting in a way that supports their focused work.

Here are some quick wins tech teams can apply to start building better habits when it comes to meeting scheduling:

  1. Align team 1:1s. Managers tend to stack 1:1s with their direct reports back-to-back at the same time every week. While this minimizes their own calendar fragmentation, it doesn't account for their team members' time. Since these meetings happen often, usually weekly or bi-weekly, the repeated cost of fragmenting the team's time add up. Instead, 1:1s should be scheduled in a way that maximizes collective maker time, perhaps being scheduled over multiple days or always set at the start or end of the work day.
  1. Increase team awareness of everyone’s schedules. Scheduling links are great for external meetings, but when it comes to internal meetings, teams should have visibility into one another’s calendars. Everyone can then strive to book meetings in a way that maximize team focused time. Team members should be encouraged to change or propose alternate meeting times when they see maker time being fractured.  
  1. Piggyback on other meetings.  Last-minute meetings happen. About 20% of engineering teams’ meetings are scheduled with less than 24 hours' notice. Ideally these should be slotted right before or after another meeting involving the team, or at the beginning or end of the day.  
  1. Add a meeting-free day. Meeting-free days are becoming more prevalent as a way to protect focus time and encourage async communications.

Changing meeting culture takes time

Deliberate scheduling is a shared responsibility across teams. When everyone is working to amplify maker time, productivity (along with employee energy and satisfaction) grows.

This requires a new mindset on the team. When people are aware of the impact of the meetings they schedule on the full team and have the right tools to find the time that works for the most people, it will benefit everyone.  

Morgen’s new availability checking feature is bringing visibility to other’s schedules, helping everyone make informed choices when they propose meeting times. Stay tuned for new team features to optimize flow time including setting flexible meetings and getting scheduling recommendations that optimize the full team calendars.