Context-Switching: The real problem of having back-to-back meetings
It is for sure that many companies have the same problem: many of their employees are stuck in productivity because they have days and even weeks in which they only participate in back-to-back meetings, leaving them with no chance of actually working and bringing something valuable to their team, the company or even their professional growth.
But what is truly the problem with having back-to-back meetings and changing the context so often? In this post, we will talk about what context-switching is, why it is so dangerous for your organization, and what you can do to avoid it.
What is context-switching?
Although in every company we are given a certain title like Product Manager or Senior Software Engineer, it is unlikely that we only spend doing tasks of such role. Probably we spend a lot of our time attending meetings, writing documents, writing code, ideating solutions, replying to Slack messages, writing emails, etc.
The fact that all of these tasks require your attention to be completed, doing them at the same time or jumping from one task to another, from one topic to another, makes your productivity go down.
Why is context-switching so dangerous?
According to Weinberg, every time the task or the “context” changes, our productivity decreases between 20% and 80%. This means that if we handle two tasks or contexts simultaneously, we are —at least— losing 20% of our overall productivity.
Although many companies expect their employees to manage multiple projects and tasks simultaneously, they are reducing their capacity to do one task or manage one context well.
This is true for all roles; according to Pattison, on average, workers are interrupted every three minutes; these interruptions include external and self-interruptions. Based on what was observed, apart from being interrupted by people at work (in emails, Slack messages, or direct communication), employees also interrupted themselves by checking websites or embarking on a new activity (checking their phone, washing the dishes, etc.).
Although being interrupted every three minutes sounds pretty alarming, if we could immediately go back to work, the interruptions wouldn’t be so harmful. The real problem is how long it takes each individual to get back on track, remember where they left off, and continue working at the same pace they had before, which can take up until 30 minutes (Mark).
If we were interrupted only twice a day, at least one hour of the whole day would be lost in trying to focus again, but let’s be honest, there are so many more interruptions in the average role.
This is even more worrying for software engineers, as these roles take even more time to get back to the task, remember where they were, and continue writing the code they were working on.
What are some of the consequences of constant interruptions?
You may be thinking: “Ok! This definitely has negative consequences for my company; we are losing money”, but wasting time or losing money is not the only consequence your team and business can face.
Non-technical roles may also be facing issues like stress and frustration because they go daily without completing any of the tasks that will help them achieve any actual results. Some of them may be working non-paid overtime because the day ends, and they must stay to finish their tasks. That, added to the constant interruptions, make workers feel that they are always pressed by time limits, and their mental effort and workload increase.
For technical roles, the consequences are even more dramatic. As mentioned, software engineers tend to take more time returning to their tasks. Also, they have more tendency to overlook bugs and programming errors.
In this sense, teams constantly interrupted by meetings, messages, or emails tend to have higher levels of stress, frustration, feelings of vast work, and time pressure.
What can you do to avoid this?
Although interruptions are unavoidable, there are some things that teams can do to help their ICs (individual contributors) make the most of their time.
Set meeting schedules and agendas
One of the things that employees consider as detrimental and mental drainers is sudden meetings or meetings without agendas. This meeting just appears in their calendar without a reason or an agenda. This generates anxiety in the guests at the meetings because they don’t know how to prepare or what to expect from this type of meeting.
For this, companies need to work hard on instilling the need for prepared, planned and organized meetings with their teams. This will reduce interruptions and will help employees to prepare.
Block your morning or your afternoon
Having an open agenda is not a good idea, especially when you are an IC. Try setting open meeting hours to control your time and let your partners know. In this way, you can block your morning or afternoon and use it to work.
Help the whole company understand why interruptions are so detrimental
This is the responsibility of the leaders and managers in your company, so if you want this to happen, there should be a clear message sent from the leadership layers. All people in the company must understand that interruptions cost a lot to a single organization.
Respect your time and others
We have seen many companies that want to implement “No-meeting days,” but in the end, no one respects such a policy, and now the “no-meeting days” become “I-have-so-many-meetings-I-wanna-kill-myself days.” For this, you and the whole company need to establish such days and respect them, so people understand this time is necessary for you to do your job.
Develop an asynchronous working method
Although many companies call themselves “remote first,” it is challenging to develop an asynchronous work culture as they constantly depend on employees to have Zoom calls or meetings. In a way, many companies translated their all-day-meeting culture to online channels. But it doesn’t make them any more remote or efficient.
For this, companies need to truly understand what asynchronous work means and how to establish the tools and practices, so everyone in the company can adopt this work culture. If you are interested in adopting this model, check out Gitlab’s culture.
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