Context switching and an engineer’s mile-long trail of mental notes are sworn enemies. As legendary computer scientist and entrepreneur Paul Graham says, “One reason programmers dislike meetings so much is that they’re on a different type of schedule from other people. Meetings cost them more.”
It doesn’t matter if it’s a quick check-in, a daily standup, or a few friendly DMs at precisely the wrong time. Each can result in derailing your engineers’ flow. Thankfully, the answer is as simple as the problem is complex: Carve out dedicated focus time for your engineers.
We asked a dozen of our own engineering managers how they, and Slack itself, help their teams dedicate time to their most important work.
Block out your calendar
It’s hard to be productive when you’re jumping in and out of meetings. Encourage your team to put recurring holds on their calendars for focused work (and make sure these times are honored). These “focus blocks” allow developers to put their nose to the grindstone without fear of interruption.
Shannon Burns, an engineering manager, goes one step further and guides her team to book their focus time at the right time. “I encourage my reports to pay attention to their own circadian cycles and find out which times of day tend to be better for focused thinking, routine tasks or broad thinking,” Burns says. “Occasionally, when someone on the team is feeling overwhelmed, they’re pushing themselves to do types of work at the wrong time of day for them, usually due to an unspoken sense that they ‘should’ be doing something at a certain time.”
Several managers mentioned Graham’s Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule theory, which posits the cascading effect a short meeting can have on a maker’s (i.e., developer’s) productivity. For several managers, an important takeaway is to ensure that you’re grouping meetings for ICs so they can carve out at least a half day for focused work.
Cancel your meetings
A question we often hear at Slack is “What kinds of meetings are most appropriate for Slack?”
“We try to communicate and drive decision-making in channels,” says Steven Chen, the director of platform engineering. “We use meetings for human connection or when we think nuance will be lost in text.”
You may be starting to see the pattern, right? More focus time almost always means fewer meetings. One way our managers cut down on meetings is to transform them into check-ins done in channels.
If something can be done asynchronously, it works better in a channel. This includes most informational, one-directional meetings, like status checks. If it can be done in a public setting, that makes it a candidate for a check-in done in a public channel, where other teams can learn from yours.
Many informational meetings involving multiple parties can also translate to Slack channels, with the added benefit of not requiring a note taker and being more inclusive to quieter folks who don’t always feel comfortable speaking in front of audiences, or people with certain disabilities.
Establish no-meeting Wednesdays
Many managers we spoke to empower their team to set up a full eight-hour focus block on their calendar one day a week and devote that entire day to tackling big, complex projects. Neville Bowers, Slack’s director of software engineering, says that even before Covid-19 shifted Slack’s office to a distributed model, he promoted one work-from-home day a week, which was designed to save people from meetings and office distractions. It helps if everyone on your team chooses the same day (we go with Wednesday).
No matter which day your team chooses, it’s good to make it the same every week. As time-management coach Elizabeth Grace Saunders wrote for the Harvard Business Review, “Making a meeting-free day a recurring event instead of picking the day week by week increased my chances of setting boundaries and following through.”
Don’t discount DND
Sometimes the best way to eliminate distractions is to eliminate everything but the work. Customizing your notifications is one method to cut down on noise while ensuring that you and your team never miss out on something important.
And when all else fails, empower your team to activate Do Not Disturb on their phones or computers, put on a pair of headphones, and ignore every possible distraction. When the hard work is done, any updates you missed will be neatly organized in their respective channels, where you can catch up at your convenience.