We Should Have Longer Meetings (and Some Shorter Ones, Too)

I’ve had the opportunity throughout my career to work with amazingly talented technical individuals. The things they can do with computers in a relatively short period of time is impressive. I learn something new from them every day.

In order for them to do their best work, they often need long, uninterrupted chunks of time. Unfortunately, the modern workplace with its open offices, multiple chat platforms and expectations of immediate response can make this difficult. Although, I think the worst culprit here is the multitude of 30-minute / mid-length meetings sprinkled throughout the day.

Do we really need meetings?

We’ve all seen a similar meme, and it feels like there has been a resurgence lately with the disruption to our normal schedules.

I actually don’t think we should get rid of meetings. How do we create those big chunks of time where truly valuable work gets created, then? We have longer meetings! And, we have shorter meetings, too!

If we need meetings, how long should they be?

The default meeting length in Outlook is 30 minutes. I don’t think that is very helpful. It’s too long for a quick check-in on the status of a project. Agile teams have figured this out – keeping their daily stand-ups to 5-15 minutes, forcing speakers to be succinct and get to the point. Conversely, a 30-minute meeting is not long enough to get into the real meat of a topic. When trying to go deep, it often feels like it can take 10-15 minutes just to get everyone aligned on the terminology, problem statement and objectives.

Cal Newport, in his book Deep Work, talks about “attention residue.” This is when you move from one task to another, and a portion of your attention remains with the former task. So, if you are going from one 30-minute meeting to the next 30-minute meeting, the current meeting doesn’t have your full attention in the beginning.

Let’s use this time to try something new

One of the benefits of most office workers now working remotely during our current crisis is that we have the opportunity to re-evaluate some of our common working practices. Let’s take a hard look at the number of mid-length meetings.

  1. Which ones can be reduced to a short check-in?
  2. Can the short check-ins be batched to a certain day or time?
  3. Which meetings should be lengthened to sufficiently allow for deep collaboration?
  4. Should we rebrand the longer ones as ‘working sessions’ which have a better connotation and less formal feel?

Since I am a data person at heart, I thought about how we can actually measure if behavior gets changed.

Below is an illustration of what I believe the current state looks like.

I’d also hope that we would see a decline in the total number of hours we are in meetings, which could be tracked fairly easily.

It’s certainly not new, but Paul Graham’s “Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule” blog is a great read when thinking about these types of issues.

I will still schedule and attend many 30-minute meetings. If I could ask you to do one thing, think about the appropriate length of time you need to schedule and don’t just accept the default. (I couldn’t even find a way to turn the default off and make someone select the length, or even change the default on my version of Outlook)

Let me know how it goes!