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Fighting meeting burnout

A rough Monday morning planning session that Ryan Mark just wasn’t feeling.
Chao Li / Instagram

One-hour meeting. 30-minute meeting. 30-minute meeting. 30-minute break. One-hour meeting. Sound familiar? A recurring theme in Storytelling Studio retrospectives is the challenge of multiple meetings and constant context-switching between projects. As the Studio project manager who schedules most of these meetings, I often struggle to find the right balance for the team. There are many factors that can lead to a bloated calendar, such as a team working on multiple projects, all with different collaborators. Or a team might be scattered across different offices or remote like the Studio, so scheduling a meeting is the best way to bring everyone together.

Whatever the reason, it’s disruptive to the team’s morale and productivity. Sitting in meetings all day leaves little time to brainstorm, research, or even just execute on work. Going from a meeting about one project immediately to another meeting about a different project, and so on, can be overwhelming and counter-productive.

Here is what the Studio is trying to solve for this.

Large blocks of uninterrupted time

We recently introduced “Take Back Thursdays,” a four-hour block of time with no meetings. We put a hold on calendars from 1-5pm ET to dissuade colleagues from scheduling meetings with the Studio team during that block. The team is also encouraged to sign off Slack or go into “Do not disturb” mode.

Choosing Thursday wasn’t arbitrary. Giving the team space toward the end of the week, when productivity typically tends to wane, empowers everyone to either catch up after a busy Monday through Wednesday or get ahead of work for the next week.

The hope is that longer, uninterrupted blocks of time will help everyone stay focused and ultimately be more productive. We’re only on week two, but so far it’s been a helpful exercise. If it’s successful, we’d like to explore meeting-free afternoons or blocks on more than one day a week.

Make time for the team to work together

When our team was smaller and all our projects overlapped, we held hour-long working sessions for the designers and engineers to meet and brainstorm, sketch, share designs or tackle blockers. The idea was that one block of time could be used to cover multiple projects and eliminate the need for separate meetings for each.

This was beneficial for a small group, but as the number of attendees increased, it morphed into another structured meeting and became less of a working session. We’ve since stopped these sessions but may revisit in the future if its useful for individual project teams.

Cluster or spread out meeting time

A byproduct of too many meetings is only having short increments throughout the day between meetings to work. More often than not this isn’t enough time to execute on work, let alone think ahead. So if we know there will be multiple meetings in one day, we try to schedule them back-to-back, or with enough time in between to provide the team more space to work. This isn’t always realistic, especially when balancing the schedules of multiple teams, but something we try to consider before sending an invite.

Cancel or combine meetings

We’ve also found it’s helpful to frequently reevaluate standing meetings to determine whether they are still necessary and the best use of everyone’s time. The Studio recently went through this exercise and ended up streamlining some of its standing meetings. One example of this is the overlap between our daily scrum, a five-minute status update about the day’s planned work, and our weekly planning meeting, which is a Monday morning meeting to discuss team priorities for the week. Rather than have a daily scrum immediately followed by a weekly meeting on Monday mornings, we’ve combined the two. So on Monday we now have a longer, 30-minute weekly planning meeting in lieu of scrum and a five-minute scrum Tuesday through Friday.

On a daily basis, consider whether the meeting you scheduled is necessary. Does a decision need to be made? Keep it. Are you using the time to review a design? Keep it. Is the meeting meant to provide a status update that can be dropped in Slack instead? Consider canceling it. Has the team had a particularly meeting-heavy week? Consider canceling a meeting that isn’t time sensitive. Is a key member not able to join? Reschedule. And when you do hold a meeting, assign a dedicated owner who is responsible for the agenda, next steps, and actually running the meeting so it’s worth the time investment for all involved.