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White paper: Circle Back Next Week

The Effect of Meeting-Free Weeks on Distributed Workers’ Unstructured Time and Attention Negotiation

Author: Sharon Ferguson, Michael MassimiJune 6th, 2024

SUMMARY

While distributed workers rely on scheduled meetings for coordination and collaboration, these meetings can also challenge their ability to focus. Protecting worker focus has been addressed from a technical perspective, but companies are now attempting organizational interventions, such as meeting-free weeks.

Recognizing distributed collaboration as a sociotechnical challenge, we first present an interview study with distributed workers participating in meeting-free weeks at an enterprise software company. We identify three orientations workers exhibit during these weeks: Focus, Collaborative, and Time-Bound, each with varying levels and use of unstructured time. These different orientations result in challenges in attention negotiation, which may be suited for technical solutions.

This motivated a follow-up study investigating attention negotiation and the compensating mechanisms workers developed during meeting-free weeks. Our framework identified tensions between the attention-getting and attention-delegation strategies. We extend past work to show how workers adapt their virtual collaboration mechanisms in response to organizational interventions.

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