Meetings are a deceptive concept. If you are a developer like me, your journey to joining meetings may have been like this:
- New/inexperienced developer: "So that's where they make the important decisions; I'd love to join."
- When invited for the first time: "Wow, I can propose meaningful changes now!"
- Eventually, once the newness has run off: "Get me out of here, by any means necessary."
Alright, disclaimer: the quality of a meeting depends so much on its goal and the people in the room. For example, I love interactive whiteboard sessions with developer colleagues.
There is one type of meeting I particularly dislike. It's called the "quick meeting", also presented as "it will only take five minutes".
This article will explain why five-minute meetings do not exist and advocates for an alternative method.
But first, go to the bathroom
I'm not joking. Go to the bathroom and remember this advice to make it through your next "short" meeting without having to pee.
Related: inspiration tweet for this article (external link, opens in the same browser tab).
There is no such thing as "only five minutes"
When someone asks you for a five-minute meeting, reserve half an hour at least. Even if the actual discussion costs a couple of minutes, you will lose time on overhead. Examples of overhead:
- Collecting every participant in one room.
- Possibly not until you've asked previous occupants to leave your reserved meeting room.
- Waiting for the colleague who:
- is grabbing a quick drink from the kitchen;
- is being held up by another person;
- is trying to unmute themselves from a video call.
- Cease filler conversation (small talk).
- Setting up a presentation on an external screen.
- Trying to find relevant documents.
- When in a multi-subject meeting: waiting for other people's topics to finish before discussing yours.
People also need time to transition their focus. One rule of thumb is that a person needs twenty minutes to concentrate fully, and that's for people who don't have attention span issues.
The cherry on top is that people often underestimate the time needed to discuss a subject. Especially in situations where logical thinking and planning are involved (hello fellow engineers!) and you cannot rush a solution.
Can you send an email instead?
You can turn some meetings into emails. For example: if the meeting is not a dialogue but a speech. I would also refrain from real-time discussions when one party cannot respond adequately within the same session.
You can also send small messages via chat apps, like a heads-up or a question. Some you can even discuss while you run into each other on the way to the coffee machine, in a shared bathroom, or another away-from-desk location.
The perks of writing things down
Writing facts, questions, and even blurbs down has indirect benefits. Some of which include:
- Provide each party with the same information, which they can use to prepare their response.
- Give others room to think about a subject and respond on their terms.
- Add descriptions that you can directly copy/paste to issue trackers and documentation.
- Make it easier to track previous discussions, useful for accountability later.
- Prevent pulling people from their focus, team, and deadlines.
- Tailor communication to the people you want a response from, which includes increasing or decreasing the use of jargon.
Meetings can be helpful but are not a solution to every discussion. Save time and energy by turning questions into written communication before claiming everyone's calendar space.
And don't forget: you can always plan a meeting if it's needed. Do indulge your conversation partners with background information beforehand so they can prepare.