Meeting-free days: 11 productivity tips from IT leaders

Overwhelmed with meetings? Consider this expert advice for clearing your calendar and improving productivity
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Many employees (and executives) have hit their limit when it comes to sitting through endless meetings, virtual or otherwise. Even my calendar has started to warn me how much time I’m spending in meetings on an average day. We may joke around about how overwhelmed we are, but the consequences are no laughing matter. Wasted time spent in unnecessary meetings is killing creativity and inspiration for many of us.

[ Get more tips on creating a positive hybrid work culture in a new report from Harvard Business Review Analytic Services: Maintaining Momentum on Digital Transformation ]

Getting into a good working groove is tough enough at this point in the pandemic. And when you finally do, here comes the ping to let you know your next meeting is in 10 minutes. Setting aside certain times of the day (just after that morning coffee is a great time) or even devoting an entire day of the week to meeting-free time is imperative to productivity.

11 tips from IT leaders for letting go of meetings

Need inspiration to free up time for meaningful work? Consider these tips from executives who’ve made significant changes to their employees’ calendars over the years.

1. Treat meeting-free days as a goal instead of an absolute

“Treat meeting-free Fridays as a goal as opposed to an absolute. Be grateful for the focus time you would have not had otherwise instead of being devastated by a meeting that sneaks on your Friday calendar. This is particularly true when collaborating with organizations that don’t have meeting-free Friday norms. When those colleagues find out about your organization’s norm, they’ll most likely be delighted to accommodate to free their own Fridays for focus time. The more we do this, the more it can become a norm across companies.” –Dave Egts, Chief Technologist & Senior Director, Red Hat

2. Consider minimalist culture when it comes to meetings

“I have been intentional about building a minimalist culture when it comes to standing meetings and meetings in general. And since we teach a module on Meeting Management, it’s important to walk the walk.” –Dan Roberts, CEO, Ouellette & Associates Consulting

3. Review your calendar in advance

“In the interest of overall team productivity, it is vital that each one of us review — every business day — the meetings on our calendars for the next business day as well as seven calendar days from today. A review of our upcoming meetings could trigger actions from our end to respond or decline with good reason. This ensures that we provide sufficient time to the senders to move meetings around if necessary. Meeting organizers have to spend time preparing for the meeting in advance. No-shows without notice can seriously impact the team’s productivity requiring rework and unwarranted confusion. Reviewing our upcoming meetings 7-days and 1-day in advance allows for any adjustments we have to make to our attendance.” –E.G Nadhan, Chief Architect and Strategist, Red Hat

4. Consider quality of meetings over quantity

“I don’t have a team and operate mostly as a solopreneur, but I do strive to hold all my client calls and meetings on Tuesdays-Thursdays, leaving Mondays and Fridays free for reflection, content creation, and social time (not social media time.) My thinking is that one reason we have so many meetings and negatively impact people with them is because we plan and run those meetings so poorly. So in addition to instituting “No Meeting” days, we should also be taking a hard look at improving how we plan and run the meetings we do choose to still have." –Bob Kantor, IT Management Consultant & IT Executive Coach, Kantor Consulting Group, Inc.

5. Consider a better way to accomplish your tasks

“Even before the pandemic, Slack had been focused on reimagining the way we work. We’ve found that the key to being productive lies in the balance between collaboration and focus time, and too many meetings can often take away from that. It’s important to take stock of ongoing meetings and determine whether they’re productive or whether there was a better way to accomplish the task. For example, instead of holding meetings for status updates, teams can do digital check-ins that can be shared asynchronously so that everyone knows what’s being worked on. At Slack, we’ve implemented “sync” hours, in which people are available for meetings and brainstorms, and “maker” hours dedicated to focus time. By creating space for deep, focused work, employees can prevent video fatigue and truly be more productive.” –Christina Janzer, VP of Research & Analytics, Slack

6. Encourage prioritization of critical tasks

“The Covid-19 pandemic has been one of the most trying disruptions in our personal and professional lives. Remote work is adding hours to our days – what used to be a five-minute conversation or a quick pop by a desk is now often a 30-minute formal Zoom meeting. More and more, it feels like we’re living in a world where the workday doesn’t seem to end and our home and office lives are increasingly blurred. We implemented “Focus Weeks,” where everyone is encouraged to cancel recurring meetings and focus on more dense, long-term work during shorter, 4-day weeks (like when there’s a public holiday or company Recharge Day). The goal of these weeks is to hit ‘reset,’ prioritize more critical tasks and focus on heads-down work without having to cut through the noise of a traditional workweek.” –Johanna Jackman, Chief People Officer, Airtable

7. Eliminate the number of recurring meetings and reduce unnecessary attendees

"I’m not a big fan of “meeting-free” Fridays because I think it’s a solution to the wrong problem. The issue is that most companies have too many meetings, so banishing meetings from a certain day of the week will just make the other days of the week even busier. To reduce the number of meetings, start with restricting the use of recurring meetings. Recurring meetings give participants a forum to delay decisions, not make them, since “there’s always next week.” These meetings tend to be a huge waste of time and clog up people’s calendars.

Another best practice is to limit meetings to no more than 4 people – if you have too many more than that, the meeting tends to be ineffective and include employees who could be quickly and easily informed later. By reducing the number of meetings and meeting sizes, you can give your employees back large blocks of time to think and get real work done." –David P. Mariani, Founder & Chief Technology Officer, AtScale

8. Implement the 'record' feature

“Most of our employees work remotely, as do I, and we encourage people to manage their work and personal time in the way that works best for them and their families. I like to make use of the ‘record’ function on our meeting platforms so people can miss a meeting without worrying about missing out on important information. It’s also important to me to make meetings more engaging and efficient, rather than drudgery, so people are energized and motivated by time spent collaborating with colleagues. It’s not really about fewer meetings, it’s about having better meetings.” –Hellene Garcia, Head of Commercials for Neat

9. A 4-day workweek is an easy fix to a meeting-free day

“As a global company operating remotely which only has 4 days of common working time, it’s hard to have a global meeting-free day. However, we have implemented a 4-day working week for everyone every other week. Employees in Israel enjoy every other Sunday off and the U.S. and the rest of the world get every other Friday off. Many employees take advantage of this and enjoy the time off. However, when there’s a lot of work to do, sometimes these days off are used by employees as meeting-free days. We constantly check how Augury can improve and we will continue to do so also with regard to our meeting cadence." –Michal Gutelzon, People Ops US at Augury

[ Read also: Future of work: A case for the three-day weekend ]

10. Collaboration tools can offer the same functions as meetings

“At Deltek, every other Friday is designated as a Project Nation Day, where we end our official workday at 1:00 pm local time. We don’t schedule any meetings on these Friday afternoons, and employees can use the time to do individual work or get a head start on their weekends. As we emerge from the pandemic “all calls, all the time” working model, I think all of us need to carve out more quiet time in our calendars for individual work, planning, and reflection time. One tactic I learned was to block time on my calendar each week for “focus sprints.” By blocking time in advance and making notes of things I need to accomplish, I use the time productively.

Speaking of productivity, collaboration tools allow our employees to accomplish more. With functions like file sharing, document co-authoring, group chats, and other features that allowed us to do what we were doing in meetings but on our own schedules, we freed up our calendars for more individual work and quiet time.” –Shirin Mangold, VP, IT Service Management and Facilities, Deltek

11. Block "distraction-free" time on your calendar

“By allowing our team to block time in their calendars just for themselves or as a way to get into a ‘distraction-free’ mindset, they’re able to boost productivity and make the most of their time outside of meetings. Calendar tools allow employees to show as “Busy” or “Do Not Disturb,” preventing others from unnecessarily bothering them. Our whole team has had to adapt to each other’s changing schedules and work habits in the pandemic, but with the help of these practices and tools, our company has experienced a boost in productivity.

For myself, in this ‘always-on’ work environment, it has become essential to explicitly block time on my schedule to focus on work-related tasks like finishing a board update report, as well as for my personal life. When I make time for personal activities like working out, it benefits my physical and mental health, allowing me to be a better leader and more productive and present whether I’m in meetings or not.” –Hemant Elhence, CEO, Excellerate

[ Get exercises and approaches that make disparate teams stronger. Read the digital transformation ebook: Transformation Takes Practice ]

Katie Sanders
Katie Sanders is the Content and Community Manager for The Enterprisers Project, seeking contributors who have expertise that can be shared with an audience of CIOs and IT leaders. She is eager to provide quality thought leadership and insights, leaving readers with actionable takeaways they can implement in their own organizations.

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