Does your calendar look like a game of Tetris, meetings on top of meetings from Monday to Friday? Or do you cringe when someone pops a meeting invite into the middle of your deep work afternoon? How would you feel if you had a whole day of your schedule totally cleared? Episode 5 explores the promises and problems with implementing a no-meeting day for your team.
Debater Rani Shah is a superfan of the practice and has been doing no meeting days for years. She’s supported by Dr. Vijay Pereira, who shares his research on how no meeting days can boost autonomy and decrease feelings of micromanagement. New debater Deb Lao joins to argue against the practice, supported by meeting expert Mamie Kanfer Stewart who pitches some alternative ways to solve your meeting woes.
“The surprising impact of meeting-free days”
Research by Dr. Vijay Pereira
“Why a no-meeting day doesn’t get at the real problem”
Article by Mamie Kanfer Stewart
“Perceptions vs. Reality: How our assumptions influence the way we think, work, and collaborate”
Atlassian and Bloomberg study
Christine: Listeners, have we got a match up today! Veteran Debater Rani Shah, and new to the show, Deb Lao. Welcome ladies.
Christine: Welcome ladies.
Rani: Hey Deb. I'm so excited to chat with you today.
Deb: Me too, Rani. I am intimidated, but ready.
Rani: Oh my God. Literally do not be, it's like the best part of my work week. Actually, I take that back – it’s the best part after my no meeting day.
Christine: Okay, okay, debate mode already! Why don’t we just get into it?
Welcome to Work Check, an original podcast from Atlassian where we debate whether workplace practices are still working for us. I'm your host and judge, Christine Dela Rosa. And I like my schedules like I like my nachos: a little bit of everything, evenly distributed.
Rani: I have one: I like my schedules like I like my floor plans: open.
Deb: Oh I have one! I like my schedule like I like my jeans: flexible.
Rani: Ooh that’s pretty good.
Christine: I like that we’re actually making a game out of this now, but it’s actually a great seg. that brings me to today's debate: should your team have a weekly no meeting day? Rani, you're arguing that teams should have no meeting days, and I know you're on the Trello team, and Trello has this practice. Are you excited to be in favor of something that you practice in your own life?
Rani: Abso-fricking-lutely. So for me, on the Trello team, we've always been a big proponent of no meeting days or what we kind of colloquially call deep work days. For me personally, Friday is the Trello wide no meeting day. And the way I like to think about it is if Sunday Scaries exist, for me, I get Friday funsies when I wake up on Fridays. Because I don't need to be socially acceptable as far as how I look, how my hair is. I just cozy-blanket-up and I'm ready to work. And, personally, done wonders for my mental health, and I have five years of doing this, so I am jazzed about this topic.
Christine: Wow, five years. That is a lot of practice you're bringing to the table, Rani, and it sounds like it was a really positive thing for you.
Rani: Hundo P, yes.
Christine: Deb, you are arguing against the practice, you're saying that teams should not have no meeting days. So what are your feels on this? Do you not wanna support Rani's mental health here?
Rani: Oh no!
Rani: Deb, safe space, safe space!
Deb: Leading the witness, uh, baiting. Um, so actually I was pretty on the fence about this one because when I learned about this topic, I was like, well, obviously I would argue pro cuz personally I'm pro. But once I got assigned to the con, and started really digging into everything, I was like, you know what? I see a lot of challenges with this team-wide, mandated, no meeting day every week. And so…
Christine: I'm, I'm hearing some emphasis. Foreshadowing.
Rani: I’m here for the emphasis. Oh, this is great.
Deb: So I'm here to argue the con side and help us think about this issue in a more nuanced way.
Christine: Well, I like that vibe. I mean, it's the spirit of, like, examining whether what we're doing right now is correct, not just for ourselves, but, like, the whole team to think about this? So let's get into the debate. Rani, you are arguing in favor, so why don't you start us off? Why should we all be implementing a no meeting day?
Rani: Alright, I’m jumping in. So, first things first: what I think is the most impactful and obvious thing is that we’re in way too many meetings as a society, and we’re not leaving enough time in our schedules for actual work.
Rani: And there’s actually data to back this up. In a 2022 survey from Otter.ai and organizational psychologist Steven G. Rogelberg, 46% of respondents agreed with this statement which is: “I have too many unnecessary meetings on my calendar.”
Christine: Uh, half the population.
Deb: I believe that.
Rani: No, truly. And so, with this, a no meeting day for me is a tool to make you rework your schedule and set aside actual, concrete time for deep work. And I work in a creative role and Deb, I know you do as well. So setting time aside for deep work is super important for people like us. Also if you’re able to remove distractions, and focus on the task at hand, you can sometimes reach a flow state. And for me, this is where the best creative ideas happen. And, a flow state is this idea of…Christine, let me ask you a question. Have you ever been doing an activity, it can be enjoyable or work related, where you're kind of working on it and kind of lose track of time?
Christine: Yeah, I'm in the zone. I'm not really thinking anything but being present to whatever I'm doing. In fact, that is how I'm late to meetings sometimes.
Deb: Me too.
Rani: Totally. Yes. And it's such a human thing. But if you have a meeting coming up that day, I don’t think you can really sink into that creative flow. You always have one eye on the clock, y’know, your scheduling brain stays on, rather than letting the creative brain take over.
Chrisitne: I get it.
Rani: I think of this like shower thoughts. You know, when you’re in the shower and the best creative ideas come to you because your subconscious mind kicks in and you’re better able to play and explore with your thoughts. So for me, the no meeting day is the shower thoughts day of the week. It gives you this time to come up with solutions, to ruminate. And it’s the day of the week where I get my best work done on whatever campaign or article, whatever I’m working on, because I know I can really dive into it without this fear of interruption.
Christine: Yeah, it’s a study hall.
Rani: It’s a study hall, that is absolutely one way I do use it. And from personal experience and the way my teammates approach it, it has given us time to breathe, time to have a mental shower thought, if you will, and get my work done.
Christine: That sounds like a pretty strong theme, Rani, and I love the idea of finding time in your workweek to tap into that shower thoughts mentality. Deb, I’m curious if you agree with Rani’s point about a no meeting day being a chance to find time for that deep work?
Deb: Hm. So I agree with everything Rani said about deep work and flow state, and as a designer, yes, it's crucial for me to find that time in my week. But I want to do some debunking. I don’t think a no meeting day automatically means fewer meetings or more intentional meetings, I don’t think it even guarantees deep work.
Deb: Personally, I would actually much prefer a day with a few scheduled meetings, rather than all of my collaborations happening over Slack that come in at random times and take me out of my flow state. And if you’re using a no meeting day to have less meetings or fix your meeting culture, I don’t think you’re going to find success. I actually have a guest who can help me prove this point. Uh, her name is Mamie Kanfer Stewart, and she's the author of Momentum: Creating Effective, Engaging and Enjoyable Meetings, and also the host of the Modern Manager Podcast. And Mamie actually steers her clients away from no-meeting days.
Mamie Kanfer Stewart: Most of the time when teams or team leaders come and say, we wanna have a no meeting day, I say, okay, what problem are you trying to solve? And a lot of them say, well, our meetings aren't that productive, so if we have fewer days to have meetings, we just inherently will have to have fewer meetings. And I always think that's a little bit of a funny response because just having fewer meetings also doesn't really solve your meeting problems. What most of those folks are saying when I start to unpack with them is that their meetings don't move work forward. They're not engaging people. People don't know why they're in these meetings, or they walk out feeling confused about what the next steps are and like their time was wasted. So those problems are solved with meeting solutions, not by not having meetings.
Deb: So like Mamie said, I really feel like no meeting days lead to someone cramming all their meetings into a shorter time period during the week and causing more stress. This is like cramming all of your junk into your closet before your guests come over. Uh, you're not treating-
Christine: Please don’t call me out right now, Deb.
Deb: You're not treating the root of the problem of clutter. Like, do these things, all these things spark joy? No, they don't! And just cramming them into your closet and hiding them away for one day isn't a good solution for the long term. In fact, I think five days worth of meetings in just four days could actually crash your flow state – like, who feels creative when they’re totally drained? This approach is sort of like treating meetings like they're a gym day you're dreading, and no meeting days like they're a cheat day. But what if we could think about meetings more positively? Here's Mamie again.
Mamie Kanfer Stewart: Meetings can and should be joyous times where people gather together to collaborate, to do big, rich thinking, to get aligned and build relationships and move work forward. And these fixes, like a no meeting day, have gained popularity and people see them as a fix for meetings when in actuality they're a fix for productivity and deep focused work. Which is a total other problem that we do need to solve for, but your meeting problems are gonna be solved by implementing some very basic practices that will not only make your meetings better, but will elevate all of your work. The relationships you have with your colleagues, the engagement you get from your team members, the creativity and deep thinking that comes out, you get so many benefits instead of trying to do all these quick fixes and band aids.
Deb: Mamie is exactly right. Meetings don’t have to be a drag, they can be productive and even an exciting part of your day. And here’s how we’ll get there: we set desired outcomes, a clear agenda, we stick to the set time -- these are the little practices that can actually fix your meetings. But to the deep work point, what I'm suggesting is how about no meeting time blocks instead of blocking off an entire day.
Christine: Hmm. Interesting.
Deb: So in my life, at least twice a week, I spend a few minutes reviewing my calendar for the week to see when I need to reschedule no meeting time blocks, which are typically like at least two hours, sometimes up to three. And, as I'm trying to find spots for these no meeting time blocks, um, I'll even move around a meeting or, um, see if I could skip any of my other meetings to make this happen. And this practice allows me to tune into how I'm feeling in the moment at that time during the week, it just feels so much more flexible and, and actually empowering. And if I don't need that, then I feel like I have access to all five days.
Rani: Not to be that guy, but actually…
Christine: Oh, oh
Deborah: Uh oh.
Rani: I'm that, I'm that person right now.
Christine: You're about to say it. So you are.
Rani: Yep. Yes, guilty as charged, but actually, I don't think setting no meeting time blocks will really allow us to sink into our work as well as a whole day does. You have to keep your focus split because you know a shift is coming up in your schedule.
And research has shown that full no-meeting days have huge benefits. My guest Dr. Vijay Pereira is a professor at NEOMA Business School in France. And he actually co-authored a study about the benefits of no meeting days with 25,000 employees.
Rani: And he found that no meeting days are so effective that, mm, not to be radical, but it might be beneficial to have more than one.
Vijay Pereira: What we asked there was how many no meeting days in a working week is possible and we found that out of five working days, three no meeting working days in a week was optimal, where all concerned: the employees, the managers, and the organization benefited. We saw that autonomy, communication, cooperation, engagement, productivity and satisfaction, all of these went up. Micromanaging and stress, these two aspects went down.
Rani: So I’ll be realistic. I’m not sure my team could swing three no meeting days each week yet – even though it sounds like the absolute dream. But, it’s totally possible! More than a third of the 76 companies in Dr. Peraira’s study did three no-meeting days every week.
Rani: And these companies were all multinational, with over 1,000 employees.
Rani: And they found that one of the great effects was a reduction in micromanagement. More from Dr. Pereira on that.
Vijay Pereira: Micromanaging was a very surprising aspect for us. Even if there was one no meeting day where you didn't have to face your bosses or your colleagues, micromanaging went down 33% with one day.
Rani: 33% less micromanaging because you get the chance to shape your own day.
Deb: Not to be that guy…
Deb: But what if you need to talk to your boss? Some people might need to talk to their managers. Are we villainizing managers here, Rani?
Rani: Absolutely not. I totally value my managers. However, the reason I have had such a positive relationship with the managers at my time at Trello and Atlassian is because I've gotten that space, and that space also includes this understanding of my manager will not always be there when I need help. I will have to solve problems on my own, and my manager will need to learn to trust that I can handle things as they come that day without a meeting to talk every little thing through. And that trust honestly makes me a better employee. Here’s Dr. Pereira again.
Vijay Pereira: It's a win-win situation because we go back to the old sort of hypothesis that the more satisfied your people are, the better they will perform. And so it's not only about money or reward, it's also about how you care for your employees or managers in terms of putting them in that zone or giving them space.
Deb: So, I really love that idea of the lack of micromanagement, uh, making space. I guess my challenge to that is that managers are often the people who are like, have the most meetings.
Christine: That’s true.
Deb: And they're the ones that are kind of the hardest to get to. And, you know, I’ve actually been wondering about how a no meeting day would affect the junior folks or folks that are new to the team to be completely sort of blocked off from their manager. So I asked a junior designer on my team for his take and he sent me this:
Olaoluwa Oyenuga: As a new associate, there's a lot I'm still learning about our creative team, so there've been many situations where a verbal conversation has been far more valuable and productive to me than chatting over Slack. That's just to say that if we did have a team wide no meeting day and I just happened to need support or coaching, it would be pretty frustrating to not be able to meet with my manager or colleagues, for example, to get clarity and resolve that blocker.
Deb: Yeah, and sometimes you need that face-to-face support to learn, and a team wide no meeting day can make it hard to get that help.
I’ve seen the same thing happen with cross-functional teams. Having one less day to meet doesn't sound like a lot but what if a bunch of different teams have different no meeting days, it can really torpedo cross-team projects.
Christine: Totally relate.
Deb: You know, the more cross-functional your project is or your role is, the more difficult it's gonna be to find a time that works for everybody. So in a study of US-based knowledge workers, uh, done in late 2021, about a third, so 28% of respondents belong to over 10 cross-functional teams within their company. And this was a study actually that Atlassian did with Bloomberg.
Christine: I was just about to say this sounds super familiar.
Deb: It is, it really is. I'm, I'm trying to go for those extra credit points here, Christine. I know you worked on that study! But think about that, that's a third of people working on over 10 cross-functional teams! And Atlassian is a global company, so if you put that on top of it, different time zones, y’know I could see it being like a pretty tough game of Tetris, meeting Tetris every week if all teams don't coordinate their no meeting days.
Christine: Yeah, I relate to that. Anecdotally, we have teams all around the world. Um, folks in Australia tend to have no meeting Mondays because in the US where I'm based, um, that's our Sunday. And then in addition to that, our Fridays are their Saturdays, so we already lose a day of the week from a time zone perspective. And then we have other teams that are like, we have no meeting days once a week as well. And then I had to keep adding and adding all the no meaning days for one specific project I'm thinking of. And I'm like, oh, so it's just Wednesdays that I can do. And since it's just Wednesdays, and everyone has this idea that's also on these cross-functional teams, no one has any openings. And as someone who schedules a lot of cross-functional team meetings, it's kind of a nightmare. I was like, “Please, please let me in. I'm so sorry I'm booking over your lunch. Can you meet at 7:00 AM? I'm so sorry.” There's, there's nothing there. But it's because everyone was booked because of the time zones and the no meeting days from multiple teams. I get it.
Deb: No meeting-geddon. I'm gonna make it a thing.
Deb: Like Armageddon, but it’s like no meeting….
Deb: Sorry – I, I'm workshopping it, guys.
Rani: I think it’s good.
Christine: Okay. Okay, okay. Yeah, no, I see that.
Rani: I hear you guys on this, it’s hard to meet across time zones and teams so I get that no meeting days can make things messy. But I want to keep in mind that a no meeting day doesn’t have to be a hard and fast rule. I treat my no meeting day boundary like aluminum foil – it’s shiny and visible, but flexible. So if you need to crinkle it a bit, you can.
Christine: Ah, nice.
Rani: When I have these situations where I can’t find a time to meet with another team, I know I have this day that’s still available.
Christine: Ok so you’re saying it’s like a soft boundary, if you need to go use it, you can, but you don’t have to.
Rani: Exactly. Now I’ve been in my job for a while, and I’m not shy about saying no to meetings. But for some people, saying no to meetings can be intimidating, right? Depending on the relationship you have with that colleague, or maybe you’re new to the team, you’re younger, you belong to a minority, or you just have a more shy personality – a no meeting day gives you an out. You can respond to people asking for your time, by saying, actually my manager has told me that there are no meetings on this day, so I'm so sorry but I can’t meet.
Christine: It's not my fault, it's my manager's.
Rani: Exactly, see you next week. And this helps you protect your time, so you can get your work done within the work week. Now, I’m really careful not to do this often anymore at all, but I’ve definitely had scenarios early in my career, where I’ve been tied up in meetings all week and I have to get an extra bucket of work done at like Friday 8:00 PM or, like forbid, on a Saturday.
Christine: I’m still, still working on it.
Rani: Okay, we need to fix that. That should not have to happen Christine!
Christine: No, you’re right.
Rani: But I just think we’ve all had weeks where the meeting invites just pile up. So a no meeting day helps everybody, especially if you’re someone on the team with less power, it’s a tool that helps you say no to interruptions and truly protect your time.
Christine: Or if you're not even planning for something that comes up, it's just that extra buffer time that kind of saves you for those unexpected things.
Rani: Totally, great point.
Deb: I completely agree. where we don't agree is no meeting days to me are like a sledgehammer when you really need a scalpel.
Deb: Yeah. You need that precision. And I think that having a, team-wide, no meeting day on a weekly basis, um, is pretty prescriptive, because who gets to decide which day is the no meeting day? Is it a democratic process? Like, is it the manager just picking the day?
Um, an anecdote is my husband actually was the only person who didn't cringe, uh, when I told them that I'd be arguing the con side of this debate. And I was like, oh, like , why aren't you cringing? And basically he was like, “oh, no, I, I wouldn't wanna have like a, you know, weekly mandated, no meeting day. I'd prefer to create my own schedule.”
Um, you know, it's a really bold calendar move that can be like overbearing on people. Um, it assumes the week will go as planned, which it rarely does, let's be honest. And I think there's, while there's positive intent to unblock some individuals and give them space to do what they need to do to reset, I think it actually ends up shifting the blockage to others who might be trying to get in touch with you, who might just need to, you know, help move the project along.
I think it's better to let people run their own schedules and have the freedom to turn down meetings and set their own chunks for deep work when it makes sense for them.
Christine: I think that makes a lot of sense. Like, sure, a no meeting day is fun on the individual level, but so many issues arise when you apply it to a team or a whole organization.
Deb: Yes, there is a trade off, big trade off. And I don't think that a weekly, no meeting day is like the ultimate solve.
Christine: You know what’s interesting is, I feel like you’re both arguing in favor of focus time in the week, whether that's a chunk or a whole day or even three days without meetings. But I think the more important point, or the one that swayed me most, is about autonomy. For the team to provide an environment where each individual team member can just figure out for themselves: can I have a whole day of no meetings? Can I put blocks on my calendar to do specifically deep work? That level of psychological safety makes the biggest difference to me. And for that reason, Deb, you are the winner of today’s debate!
Deb: Whooo! Oh yeah. I cannot believe it.
Christine: No one can see the dancing happening right now, but…
Deb: The dancing is happening. Oh my goodness.
Rani: I, I love it. I can't say I'm not disappointed, but I am glad this debate isn't deciding my schedule for the next week. Because if I'm gonna be honest, I'm gonna be over here enjoying my no meeting day and maybe even popping in a few dance moves along the way.
Deb: Oh yeah.
Christine: I mean, Deb, uh, you are the winner, but not to trivialize that, you're both kind of the winner cause you're both kind of promoting the idea of people having time to do so many things that can't happen while you're in meetings. And so, uh, hopefully this gives a lot of, lot of fodder for folks to think about what they wanna do on their own schedules.
For anyone out there that wants to dig into the details of this episode, you can see the transcript and other relevant perspectives on worklifeatatlassian.com/blog. And until next time, I'm Christine Dela Rosa, and this is Work Check, an original podcast from Atlassian,