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That meeting could have been an email.

As a professional meeting attendee, I often attend anywhere between 25–30 meetings in a given week. I have one of those calendars that is so solidly booked, it looks like it’s one solid meeting until you look and realize it’s made up of 400 smaller meetings in a trenchcoat named Busy. I don’t usually mind though, because if you run your meetings right, they can be effective, useful, and can sometimes even lead to people wanting to attend more of your meetings!

We’ve all been to bad ones. Sometimes they go on forever. Most of the time they could have been an email. Sometimes people aren’t sure if they can safely say no to a meeting, so there are at least 30 extra people that didn’t need to be there but feel obligated to participate, which drags the meeting on for even longer. Each flavor of bad meeting is like a nightmare frozen yogurt sundae where the toppings keep coming and no one wants to stop and clean up the soupy, sticky, ridiculously expensive mess we’ve gotten ourselves into.

But guess what – you’re an engineering leader! Maybe you’re a manager, or maybe you’re an individual contributor who is working on their leadership skills. Maybe you’re just tired of bad meetings. Whichever camp you fall into, you have the power to fix this! I believe in you. Let’s get into this.

Why should you care about fixing inefficient meeting culture?

First of all, meetings are expensive. Given the current rate of tech salaries, it can cost anywhere from $60–100 an hour, per person, to attend a meeting. Maybe more if you have a number of people with fancy titles in attendance. Multiply that by the number of meetings that could have been an email, and you start to realize how you can save a lot of money by being thoughtful around the types of meetings you have and how you run them. Running inefficient meetings has a real cost that should be factored into whether or not to have one in the first place.

Secondly, it’s a morale drag to endlessly sit in meetings where people feel like their opinions don’t matter. We are still living through a pandemic (in most parts of the world) and people are tired. Forcing people to sit in inefficient meetings is just cruel at this point. Parents are tired. Single people are tired. People of color and underrepresented genders are tired on top of the normal tired. We are all so tired.

Not to mention, the context switching from hopping in and out of meetings has a direct negative impact on productivity. People need focus time to think about hard problems. This applies to both engineers and managers! Yes, managers need focus time too to work on things like strategy, unblocking people, and improving processes. Help your team (and yourself!) be more productive by being thoughtful around your meeting experience and cadence.

What makes a good meeting?

It’s a popular refrain that all meetings are useless, but I’m a big fan of designing useful meetings. Software is a team sport, and a team is made of people who need to work together. Oftentimes, asynchronous text messages lead to misunderstandings, so we do need meetings on a regular basis to keep that human connection going and clear up miscommunications early. However, most meetings are poorly designed and inefficient. It’s your responsibility as a leader to design good ones for your team to help them utilize synchronous time together to the best of their abilities.

A good meeting should be:

  • Useful
  • Focused
  • Only as long as it needs to be
  • Documented
  • Starting and ending on time

Meetings should be useful

It’s hard to believe I have to say this, but your meeting should be useful and provide value to the people attending! Carefully consider how many meetings you’re scheduling and ask yourself: why are we having this meeting? Are people tuning out? Is this necessary? If you have a recurring meeting, iterate on it. Use Slack or Zoom surveys and give meeting goers (especially ICs!) the ability to give you feedback. Maybe cancel it and see if anyone notices. Regularly review your recurring meetings and experiment to see what works.

Treat your meetings like any other engineering process: gather feedback, iterate on changes, and keep improving them.

Meetings should be focused

Contrary to popular belief, I am not against meetings, but I am against them if they don’t have a purpose. If you can’t answer or agree on the following questions when scheduling a meeting, cancel it:

  • Who is leading this meeting?
  • Why are we having this meeting?
  • What is the purpose?
  • What is the agenda?
  • What are the action items?

There are many different types of meetings, each with its own purpose. I recommend keeping these types of meetings separate in order to keep them focused:

  • Daily standup
  • Project kickoffs
  • Regular project/team syncs
  • Strategy or working sessions
  • Retrospectives
  • Informal social/coffee talk
  • 1:1s (these are a separate topic I cover in depth in this post)
  • Executive briefings (a separate topic best covered in this great talk by Kevin Goldsmith)

To stay focused, it’s also important to make sure that any chatty folks are encouraged to keep to the stated agenda. Be clear about who is leading the meeting and what the agenda is about. Don’t be shy about calling out when the topic has strayed if it seems unnecessary. We are here to make the most of our time together.

Meetings should be as short as possible

When scheduling a meeting, always aim for the shortest possible time. You can always add a follow-up meeting if needed.

Here are my recommended meeting lengths that I generally follow, but season to taste based on your own team’s needs:

Meeting

Length

Purpose

Standup 

 10 min, 3x week in person and/or Geekbot

Led by a rotating leader – status updates, blockers, human connection

Weekly team sync 

 30 min every week

Sprint planning, task planning, bring up blockers.

Retrospective 

 1 hour/month + async issue

Pulse on how the team is doing and a chance to improve iteratively. It can also be used for mid and end projects.

Office hours 

 30 min, 2x a month

Talk with external teams – open forum to answer questions about team's area of responsibility.

Coffee talk 

 30 min, 2x a month

Social time (optional)

Project kickoff 

 1 hour, as needed

Project alignment across stakeholders and engineers – define roles, schedule, and next steps.

Strategy or working sessions 

 1-3 hours, as needed

Workshopping ideas with room to explore and collaborate on ideas. Break sessions into 1 hour chunks with breaks.

1:1s

 30 min every week to 1 hour every week. Season to taste based on individual needs.

Work on goals, human connection, provide feedback.

Executive briefings 

 Variable

Bring executives up to speed on a project, be informed on company direction, bring up blockers.

 

Document your meetings

I love well-documented meetings. They help people in different time zones feel more included, help shy folks feel more comfortable contributing to the conversation, and maintain accountability for everyone involved. If someone (like a parent) can’t make it to a meeting, having regularly documented meetings means that they can catch up on their own time without needing to be in the room at a particular time. This also cuts down on the number of participants who feel obligated to attend synchronous meetings.

With Zoom meetings having a handy record to the cloud button, it can be easy to keep recordings of important meetings. Personally, I prefer written notes since they’re easier for me to skim, but transcripts can also be handy in this area as well.

Meetings should start and end on time

I’m a huge believer that meetings should start and end on time. As someone who is in a lot of meetings, I want to respect my team’s time and attention. There’s nothing worse than waiting for your manager to show up to your 1:1 and feeling like you’re the last person they feel like seeing. I try to start my meetings one minute after the start time and end exactly on time or earlier.

If I am running late, I try to give others a heads-up before the meeting starts so that they know they can start without me. If you have a rotating schedule of meeting leaders, this helps prevent the dead time at the beginning of a meeting while you wait for the meeting lead to show up.

Conclusion

As leaders, it’s our responsibility to make sure that we are running our team processes as smoothly as possible. If you’re noticing that your team isn’t as engaged as you’d like during meetings, check in to see if your meetings are useful, focused, only as long as necessary, documented, and are starting and ending on time. Iterate and see if that helps with engagement.

I hope this helps your meetings be more productive! Want to see more in-depth templates? Check out my manager documentation repo for templates, recommended resources, and more.

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Managing meetings without succumbing to Zoom fatigue
Episode 02 Managing meetings without succumbing to Zoom fatigue