You know the feeling: You open your calendar in the morning to find a completely booked day, back-to-back meetings and not even 15 minutes of time to complete any of the items on your to-do list. In fact, your day tomorrow and the day after look just as booked.
An HBR study conducted last year found that face-to-face requests are 34 times more successful than email when trying to effectively communicate or persuade someone. And, we all know that spending time with colleagues is critical to cultivating relationships and building company culture. But what if engineering team leaders took away just one day of these interactions to create more headspace for their teams?
For the last seven years, I’ve opened space in my engineers’ schedules by mandating that one day per week must have zero meetings. While putting this rule into place successfully has been challenging, the benefits I’ve discovered consistently reinforce my decision to keep it alive and spread the word to other CTOs and engineering leaders.
Here’s why you should consider implementing this rule and how your team can fully reap its benefits.
Humans (Especially Engineers) Struggle To Re-Concentrate
As technology advances and new tools provide us ways to reach each other faster throughout the day—and at all hours—the wealth of options to connect can cause communication overload. Add meeting after meeting into the mix, and focusing on one project without interruptions becomes nearly impossible.
The phenomenon of feeling like you’re doing many tasks at once, but never truly finishing any of them, actually has a scientific explanation behind it: When you focus, the left and right side of the prefrontal cortex work in tandem. When you multitask, you switch between the two sides of your prefrontal cortex. Although this switch takes just a fraction of a second, it can actually take up to 40% longer to complete the same tasks than if you focused on each separately.
While this multitasking phenomenon holds true for everyone, engineers especially feel the pain of multitasking, as most software development requires serious and uninterrupted concentration. As engineers figure out how parts of the system interact with other parts, distractions during this complex work might mean starting from scratch in the midst of a project.
Removing meetings from the equation one day of the week provides them a window to take advantage of completely uninterrupted time. I’ve also noticed that my team now tends to organize projects of the week around this day off from meetings, reserving the no-meeting day to execute on critical tasks that require completely uninterrupted work, which contributes to increased productivity during that day. They slate in more complex work and time-consuming projects for this day and tackle smaller projects throughout the rest of the week.
No-Meeting Days Encourage a State of Flow and Deep Work
When people do what they love and feel passionate about their work (and don’t experience distractions while doing it), they often enter into what researchers have called a state of flow. In fact, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi covered this topic in a recent TED talk, sharing his opinion that money can’t make us completely happy, but those who discover happiness have one thing in common: They find pleasure and lasting satisfaction in activities that encourage a state of flow. Giving your engineers just one day per week to reach this state could lead to increased and longer-term satisfaction with their overall work.
Not only could a day without meetings enable your engineers to reach a state of flow for at least one day per week, it also could lead to enhanced skill sets. Cal Newport, a professor at Georgetown University, coined the phrase “deep work,” a state of activity performed in a distraction-free concentration zone that pushes cognitive capabilities to a new limit. By creating this deep work zone, you invite your engineers to unlock creative thinking and discover the solution to something new, simply through access to a deeper level of concentration.
Commit to It and Stay Honest About It (I’m Talking to You, Managers!)
The no-meeting day philosophy is not necessarily new. A number of companies talk about it in different ways, but when you look under the hood, you might find that not all managers enforce it well. I’ve discovered this lack of rule enforcement leads to a lack of employee respect for the rule.
Therefore, it’s up to managers to weave it into their team’s culture. If you lead by example, you’ll set the tone and encourage other team members to follow.
If you see meetings happening on a designated no-meeting day, encourage team members to move them. Re-state the benefits at recurring staff meetings (as needed) and ensure all new employees become well-versed in the benefits and reasons why the team participates in such a day. Most importantly, if you find a certain day doesn’t work well for the majority of your team, change it. Stay flexible and open to trying new ways to make this rule fit into your current team structure and schedule. The more you involve others in the creation of the rule, the more likely they’ll be to stick with it.
Yes, every engineering leader wants his or her team to be as productive as possible. But often in striving to reach this overarching goal of peak productivity, managers miss the point: Scheduling less and taking a step back from day-to-day socialization and busyness is actually more—at least for one day a week.