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Meetings Are Killing Software Engineers' Productivity

The pandemic ushered in an era of meeting creep. Here's how to cut down on the "coordination tax."

Meetings have increased across industries since the pandemic. For engineers, that means focus time is getting cut short.

1:1s are the primary offender, leaving Engineering Managers with just 10.4 hours of focus time per week.

As organizations grow, so does time spent in meetings. Engineers at medium and large organizations spend 3.2 more hours per week in meetings.

“Mind if I add some time to your calendar?” 

Please no.

Meetings are getting out of control. Over the last two years, the number of meetings attended by American workers rose by 13.5%. And for software teams, this trend eats away at the key ingredient to productivity: focus time, defined as two-plus hours of uninterrupted flow. More than half of Engineering Managers strongly agree that focus time is crucial to productivity.

So just how widespread is this problem? And how can your team get past it? A new report from time management platform Clockwise analyzed 1.5 million meetings and survey data from more than 80,000 software engineers. Here’s what they found.

The key to protecting focus time? Scheduling smarter

Today’s individual contributor engineers (ICs) spend nearly 11 hours in meetings on average per week. But there’s another drain: the small chunks of time between meetings that end up getting frittered away, and which add up to a cumulative 6.3 hours per week.

Dubbed "fragmented time," this in-between time makes serious work almost impossible to complete. As Y Combinator co-founder and veteran software engineer Paul Graham writes, “A single meeting can blow a whole afternoon by breaking it into two pieces, each too small to do anything hard in.” 

To minimize fragmented time, experts advise placing meetings as far apart as possible or, better yet, grouping them tightly together in blocks. 

Average weekly time breakdown for IC engineers

For managers, 1:1s are the not-so-silent killers

Moving up the ranks in an engineering organization comes with a major caveat: way more meetings. But it’s not just the C-Suite and directors who take on the burden. Engineering Managers allocate a huge portion of their time to scheduling and conducting 1:1s. 

Clockwise’s analysis revealed Engineering Managers have triple the number of 1:1s as IC engineers. With an average of 18 hours spent in meetings and 1:1s per week, EMs are left with just 10 hours of focus time to edit and debug code, develop delivery metrics, and, well, manage.

The team at Clockwise recommends implementing no-meeting days to prioritize company-wide productivity. For managers, one day a week dedicated to focus time makes a massive difference—and the benefits cascade down to ICs.

Weekly meeting time for makers vs managers

The real risk of scaling—and how to combat it

When companies expand, so does meeting time. Engineers at medium and large organizations spend 36% more time in 1:1s and 3.2 more hours per week in meetings overall than their counterparts at small companies. 

This phenomenon has a name: the coordination tax.

Staying nimble and maximizing focus time gets harder with more people to manage, but it’s not impossible. Start by being more selective about who really needs to attend a meeting. And if you want to give ICs the final say on whether a sync is worth it, consider the ethos of Elon Musk's companies. “Walk out of a meeting or drop off a call as soon as it is obvious you aren't adding value. It is not rude to leave, it is rude to make someone stay and waste their time."

Then, make use of asynchronous collaboration tools like Slack, Teams, or Notion. Instead of holding constant 1:1s, a regular ‘what are you working on today?’ message might do the trick. Research from Harvard Business Review shows that 83% of employees prefer using informal digital check-ins in lieu of 1:1s.

Weekly Focus Time for engineers by company size

Meeting creep is real, and its consequences—both in productivity losses and headaches—can no longer afford to be overlooked. But there’s a simple path forward. Reassess what a calendar full of meetings really accomplishes and give your company the boost it needs by prioritizing time for deep work.

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