Are shorter meetings really better for software engineers?

There are many factors that impact productivity, but ask any engineer which stands out, and they’ll usually agree on one thing: meetings.
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Meetings bring people together, they encourage collaboration, and they’re a simple way to share information. But when they divide up the day’s schedule—and typically involve a conference table where every laptop is open to Slack—meetings lose their value.

Our research led us to consider this concept of “meeting health.” When looking to improve meeting health (that is, say, optimizing time spent in meetings and reducing multitasking during them), one of the most common directions is, simply, to shorten them. 

A quick search for meeting habits will provide you with myriad articles, such as “The 30-minute meeting: Why shorter meetings can be more productive” by TechRepublic and “Data Doesn’t Lie: Shorter Meetings Can Make You 3x More Productive” by Entrepreneur.com

As data-crunching, good-habit-building nerds here at Uplevel, we have to ask: Are shorter meetings really more productive? Is there data to prove it, and is it true for all roles and purposes?

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We started by studying the numbers behind meeting length. Across our customers, we saw that the average time spent in meetings was around 1.4 hours a day, and found very few meetings over two hours. Nothing too concerning at the onset. 

As the previous articles suggest, we continued to ask: “Should we reduce our meeting times to less than 1 hour?” It seemed like the clear next step to improve our work habits, so we began to test it internally for Uplevel meetings. 

Quickly, we found that many meetings scheduled for 30 minutes ended up going longer. This wasn’t due to poor agendas or keeping on task. Items being discussed simply needed more time, and the more productive solution was to continue the meeting. Because of this, following meetings got crunched, and other important discussions didn’t have the time they needed, causing stress for everyone involved.

Taking a step back, our CTO Ravs Kaur asked our engineers: “Are shorter meetings really better?” The resounding sentiment around the room was: “Well, it depends”. (Even the most straightforward data conjures subjective opinions. That’s why we’re doing what we do to identify best practices.)

Unlike other roles in a company, when a developer is in a meeting—especially in project meetings consisting of other engineers—it is truly more productive to stay as long as it takes to resolve or finish working through the problem at hand. One of our engineers, Brian Park, stated that “I will happily sit in a meeting for five hours if we are on task and that’s how long it takes to figure stuff out.” 

Variable answers can feel complicated. However, instead of making broad changes to your meeting health (such as reducing all 1-hour meetings to 30 minutes), we created guidelines that work for the variable realities of work life. 

Meeting Health Checklist

1. First, review the whole day’s meeting schedule. An average of 1.4 hours a day in meetings doesn’t sound like that much. But take this scenario: 

  • You get into the office at 9am and your first meeting is 9:30-10am. You don’t have that much time before the meeting to really get into a project, so you get coffee, check a couple of emails, and head toward the conference room.
  • Your second meeting is 11-11:15am—and you take lunch from 12-1pm. Despite having an hour beforehand and 45 minutes after this quick 15-minute meeting, neither is long enough to promote Deep Work. 
  • Your last block of meetings is from 2-2:45—right in the middle of your only Deep Work block of the day. If you take into account the time following up after meetings and the desk conservations after you get back, you’re left with insufficient working time.
  • Somehow, 1.4 hours of meetings impact the entire eight hours of the day. The solution? Try to block your meetings together—like booking all in the morning or all in the afternoon—to optimize Deep Work time during the rest of the day. 

2. Before you set a meeting length, consider the goal of the meeting. We’re used to setting 30- or 60-minute meetings for everything, simply because they’re conventional standards. Steven G. Rogelberg, author of The Surprising Science of Meetings (and an Uplevel advisor), recommends that you first consider the goal of the meeting and what needs to be accomplished—then determine the amount of time needed to reach that goal. “A meeting leader should take a minute to think and make an informed guess based on some key factors: the nature of the meeting’s goals, the people invited to the meeting, and an analysis of past meetings.” Based on this knowledge, he recommends that we test out different lengths that suit that analysis, even if it’s an odd length, like 48 minutes.

3. Allow for experimentation and varying times for recurring meetings. If you have a standing check-in meeting every week, don’t be afraid to test or change the length based on agenda items. If the agenda is short one week, make it a 15-minute stand-up. For weeks with larger problems to solve, extend the time to give sufficient space for discussion. Adjust this before you head into the meeting to clearly communicate the agenda. Beyond that, find time to routinely audit all your recurring meetings. If Tuesday’s stand-up has lower attendance rates or less productive discussions than last year, it might be time to cancel the series.

As we continue to analyze data from meetings at companies of all sizes, we’ll share fresh learnings and new ways to optimize meeting health.

For additional meeting tips, read our 5 ways to get your meeting in check

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