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Keep some days “clean” for deep work
This article is part of a series called Less Meetings, More focused work.
An unwanted side effect of hybrid work is more frequent and longer meetings. This leaves less time for focused work.
Meeting-free days acknowledge that issue and aims to provide undisturbed time for focused work.
Regardless of the number of meeting-free days instituted, employees subsequently reported improvements in factors like autonomy and cooperation and decreases in stress and micromanagement. But arguably, the best results were achieved at companies that had three meeting-free days per week. — MITSloan
Again, the world of computing has a good inspiration: CPU throttling. When the CPU becomes too hot, its frequency is lowered to reduce power consumption and heat.
The idea is super simple (but hard to execute):
Decide one day as meeting-free day and ask everybody to clean it up from meetings. Which day and how frequent, is up to you. It can be once per week or it can be once per month. The more knowledge workers you have, the more you need these uninterrupted focus times.
If you cannot afford to have an entire day meeting-free, you can experiment with meeting-free slots. For example: every Tuesday and Thursday no meeting shall be booked before 12 o’clock.
AWS allegedly has meeting-free days practiced by some 20-30k employees.
Surveys show that 47% perceive Monday as the worst day for meetings, while 40% choose Friday as the worst day.
It will only work if the entire organization picks the same day (e.g., Wednesday), therefore it’s good to state it in an organization-wide policy document that can be referenced to fend off unwanted distractions.
I write about technical leadership, growth and software
At one company every other Friday was meeting-free. At another one, every Wednesday. Surprisingly, in both cases, the engineering leadership took the initiative to roll-out this counter-intuitive productivity hack.
The one that was meeting-free every Friday was more structured. It was called 10% lab day (because it was literally 10% of the paid month). I’ve written more about that here. TLDR; the greatest perk!
The one that was meeting-free every Wednesday was less structured and more free-form and trust-based. Sadly, it got axed because the top-level leadership didn’t see the value in it. The ones behind the initiative didn’t gather any meaningful metric to be able to motivate any positive impact. The developers liked it but, it might be for the wrong reasons! It’s hard to assess something without reliable metrics or no metrics at all.
It is important to communicate this policy inside and outside the organization. “Sorry, I can’t join because it’s meeting-free day” won’t work when the reply is “I don’t know about such a tradition!”. Especially when there’s a power asymmetry (e.g. a manager booking a meeting with developers), it’ll be very hard to push back. Having it as a written policy helps fight such exceptions. It will only work if all parties respect it because it is well motivated and well communicated.
The thing that really fights against the meeting-free days is a meeting-heavy culture. You may have to start from the step below and remove some meetings to be able to roll out meeting-free days.
Formulate it as a hypothesis and identify metrics that you want to improve as a result of meeting-free days (e.g. employee engagement). Narrow minded leadership may not see the bigger picture and categorize it as waste. Cover your bases by deciding on some metrics to optimize for.
Measure and monitor those metrics and have a channel to get feedback
Adjust based on feedback and if t here’s consensus that it’s not useful, stop it
There is always something “important” that is waiting to seize that unbooked day. And once it gets hold of that day, it tends to swallow more than the allocated time because there’s usually no other meeting to compete with it and put a deadline on its end.
In the WFH (work from home) era, the meeting free day may be abused, and a fraction of employees may not work at all. I believe that everyone should not be punished for a few outliers and instead we should look at why it happens (e.g. overwork or stress) and what’s the solution (e.g. set clear expectations and have a mechanism to control the outcome).
The meeting-free day also serves as a guaranteed day to take a day off with minimum impact. This is especially useful for private meetings that can be scheduled like a doctor’s appointment or a bank errand. Without meeting-free days, team members are more likely to miss important meetings due to personal reasons.
You can pick any day of the week. Monday and Friday are the most popular options as the surveys suggest. These create longer “weekends”. On the other hand, Wednesday can be a good option to because it divides the work week into two halves with a little “break” in between.
If this is the energy level on a normal week:
Keepin Fridays meeting-free gives this (at least for introverts and/or knowledge workers who need focus to get deep work done):
If Mondays are meeting-free:
And meeting-free Wednesdays are the most efficient time investment:
This is by far one of my favorite productivity hacks. In the past 3 companies I have consistently tried to keep my Fridays free from meetings. I really look forward to it. I may be stressed and overworked Monday to Thursday, but I know that Friday is the day I can compensate.
Impacted by The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, I “Sharpen the Saw®” on a daily basis in the form of reading newsletters, blog posts and hobby projects that allow me gain hands-on experiment with new technologies.
However, some days I miss it due to meetings or more urgent tasks. On Fridays however, I get a good chunk of reading and working on my coding projects. This is particularly important because as a Staff+ Engineer, I spend more time than my Senior Engineering years in meetings. Yet my impact directly depends on my technical skills. Personally, I learn better when I’m alone and I have those Fridays to thank for. Without those Fridays I would quickly fall into the trap of becoming an ivory tower architect or something (my worst professional nightmare, as my regular readers know). 😄