Meetings can be the lifeblood of any organization, allowing coworkers to check in with one another, exchange ideas and solve problems. But, for engineers moving up the career ladder, the mounting number of meetings expected of engineering managers can end up being a distraction that does more harm than good.
Research from Clockwise recently examined data from more than 1.5 million meetings over the course of a year involving more than 80,000 software engineers at more than 5,000 companies around the world. Our analysis, which aggregated and anonymized the information, found that large and growing companies in particular are putting themselves at a competitive disadvantage by distracting some of their most valuable talent from doing important work.
Engineers Spending More Time in Meetings
The 2022 Engineering Meeting Benchmarks report showed that as software engineers move into management and spend significantly more time in meetings, they lose more than nine hours a week of what the report referred to as focus time—uninterrupted blocks of at least two hours to focus on deep work.
That loss comes at a cost that can erode an organization’s bottom line. Engineering managers overwhelmingly say that focus time makes them and their teams faster and more productive, according to a related global survey of about 150 of them. Perhaps even more importantly, 76% traced a direct path from more focus time to more revenue.
And as companies grow in size, so does the meeting “coordination tax.” In the hotly competitive tech world, that can put larger companies at a disadvantage compared to their smaller, nimbler rivals. Engineers at smaller companies have significantly more focus time—nearly six more hours per week–and spend three fewer hours in meetings than their counterparts at large companies.
The Pressure of Meetings
We all have our complaints about the seemingly endless proliferation of meetings in modern business life, and many other kinds of professionals certainly need uninterrupted time to be creative. But these pressures are especially acute and costly for engineers. They are often the most expensive part of a team’s budget, and the consequences of diminished time for deep work can be dire. A single misplaced character in a line of code, for instance, can result in a massive bug affecting an entire organization. In 2012, for example, a programming oversight caused Knight Capital Group to execute a series of erroneous automatic trades, resulting in a loss of $440 million in 45 minutes—and a $12 million fine from the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). More recently, a few missing characters in a programming update shut down Skyscanner, a travel search engine and booking platform, for more than four hours.
Leaders need to be aware of the burden that they put on their teams with well-meaning but less-than-useful meetings. The engineers in the Clockwise analysis averaged 19.6 focus hours each week compared with 10.9 hours in meetings and 6.3 hours between them, something we call “fragmented time.” As they move into management, their meeting time soars to 17.9 hours while their weekly focus time plummets to 10.4 hours.
And those averages don’t tell the whole story–there’s a very wide distribution depending on the organization. At some distracted businesses, engineers are clocking in with fewer than 10 focus hours a week, while elsewhere the most productive teams get 20 or more.
It’s easy for leaders to become convinced that they need to have a slew of meetings each week–one-on-ones, daily standups, planning sessions, scrums to coordinate across teams–but the cumulative impact can turn a calendar into something resembling Swiss cheese. Traditional meetings are obviously important–we need to talk to one another and work things out–but there’s also a big opportunity for businesses to try a new approach.
It can be as simple as eliminating those annoying, unproductive 15- to 60-minute gaps in your schedule by holding meetings back-to-back. Other experiments in meeting culture could include instituting no-meeting days. Or deleting every other occurrence of a regularly scheduled meeting. Or try asynchronous working practices through apps like Loom or Slack Audio that allow participants to respond to presentations or messages on their own schedules, rather than as a group in real-time.
In 2020, for instance, the company Loom—using its own remedy internally—switched its regular all-hands meeting to an asynchronous format on the theory that real-time meetings should be reserved for conversation rather than simple information sharing from a small group of people. Staffers watch short, prerecorded videos of updates from presenters when it’s convenient for them, and then participate in a company-wide Q&A in real-time. This approach allows the company to take advantage of everyone being together to engage in discussions and exchange ideas, Graham Gawthorne, then a member of Loom’s business operations team, wrote in a company blog post.
It’s a practice that starts at the top. When scheduling, leaders need to take a good, hard look at their team’s calendars and, rather than just grabbing any empty space that shows up, consider how to leave individual contributors the blocks of time they need to actually do their work. Keep in mind that studies have shown that it takes roughly 25 minutes to refocus and get back on track after an interruption, and that task switching can take up 40% of a team’s productive time.
And leaders need to preserve enough focus time for themselves, too—rather than trying to be perpetually available to their team members. If they’re not creating space in their own calendars to solve the larger problems, they’re probably not doing what managers should: Helping their teams to thrive.
I don’t know a single engineering leader whose boss isn’t asking, “How do we go faster? How do we do more with what we have?” with even greater urgency in these economically challenging times. The Clockwise analysis suggested that the answer, for many of us, is to stop ping-ponging from one meeting to the next and give your teams what they need most: Time to focus on their work.