May 8, 2023


Maven News

Deep Work: Why We Eliminated Meetings & Other Distractions

12 min read

May 8, 2023


Maven News

Deep Work: Why We Eliminated Meetings & Other Distractions

12 min read

May 8, 2023


Maven News

Deep Work: Why We Eliminated Meetings & Other Distractions

12 min read

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Deep Work: Why We Eliminated Meetings & Other Distractions

Our company eliminated meetings and other distractions and it's been an absolute gamechanger for our culture, creativity, and work output.

We blocked off 24 hours of the 40 hour work week where meetings are not welcome.

Maven does not hold meetings on Fridays at all.

None on Wednesdays either.

Mondays are meeting free 9AM - 1PM Eastern.

Same story for Thursdays.

Meeting Free Zone

It's not just meetings. During these periods, we're off Slack, and we're not expected to be responsive to email either.

Without the typical distractions, our team members are free to have their heads down for long periods of time, uninterrupted and free to do their best work.

We do still have meetings. We're getting to be a sizeable team, and we need to collaborate with each other and support each other. But we're very deliberate about this.

There are sixteen hours of the work week that we reserve for 'Collab Time', where we are working together, meeting, sharing documents, connecting on Slack, and all the typical things you do with your coworkers at any company.

But outside of those Collab Time hours, all bets are off. We're not meeting, using Slack, checking email, or really interacting with each other at all.

Outside of those sixteen hours, we're doing what we call 'Deep Work' time.

This is what the schedule looks like for our team members who work East Coast time in the US:

Deep Work Shared Schedule

People who live in other timezones typically work their local hours, so their schedules look a little different. But their Collab Time aligns. This is when we all work together. Outside of those hours, we're working independently.

Why go through all the effort to block time free of meetings and other distractions?

Paul Graham explains it best in his Maker's Schedule essay back in 2009. If you haven't read it, do it now. It's gold. And it's a quick read. I'll quote him here...

One reason programmers dislike meetings so much is that they're on a different type of schedule from other people. Meetings cost them more.

I will argue this applied to all Creators as well... writers, designers, course instructors, creative marketers, etc. The things we'll talk about next apply to all of them too.

Graham goes on to talk about the Manager's schedule and how they view and use time...

...embodied in the traditional appointment book, with each day cut into one hour intervals. You can block off several hours for a single task if you need to, but by default you change what you're doing every hour.

He talks about the contrast with how Makers prefer to use their time...

But there's another way of using time that's common among PEOPLE WHO MAKE THINGS, like programmers and writers. They generally prefer to use time in units of half a day at least. You can't write or program well in units of an hour. That's barely enough time to get started

And here's the powerful part that everyone who works with Creators needs to understand (but a lot don't), again from Graham...

When you're operating on the maker's schedule, meetings are a disaster. A single meeting can blow a whole afternoon, by breaking it into two pieces each too small to do anything hard in. Plus you have to remember to go to the meeting.

I'll extend Graham's feelings on meetings and say that they apply to all distractions, especially things like Slack and email. Anything that takes a Creator out of their ideal flow state should be put into the same bucket and dealt with accordingly.

I first read this essay over a decade ago, and it's had a major impact on me, because I've been someone who's straddled Maker and Manager for most of my career.

I felt the pain of low value distractions personally in my Maker capacity, and I realized that as a Manager I had some power to help my fellow Makers, largely by trying to disrupt them less.

But my view on this had been incomplete for a long time.

First, I had always considered Engineers when thinking about the Maker's schedule. In a lot of tech companies, Engineering is the precious resource that usually bottlenecks, so needs to managed with efficiency. Thinking of it this way wasn't wrong, but it was way too narrow.

At Maven, we've realized that this type of schedule is critical for all types of Team Members... instructors, designers, engineers, video producers, learning designers... we took a hard look and realized we're largely a company of Creators!

Our Product team focuses on creating courses and designing and developing software to enhance the learning experience.

Our Marketing strategy centers on creating free and valuable learning content and sharing it on LinkedIn, TikTok, YouTube, and other channels to build our brand and grow an audience.

These functions make up two thirds of our company, and they need a maker’s schedule to thrive.

As our company grew, we were finding it harder and harder for our Creators to carve the time out to really get into their flow. With more people came more collaboration, more Slack, more emails, more meetings, and it left very few opportunities to carve out those four hour blocks that Creators need.

So we knew we needed to fix things, and we had some ideas...

Our first attempt, "Studio Time" was a total flop.

The idea of Studio Time was for each of our 4 most-constrained Creators to block one day of their week for heads down focused creative work.

In this example, Chris sets aside Thursday for his creative work.

Example Studio Time Schedule

Sounds like a good idea, right?

Well, it didn't work very well.

The main reason we struck out here is that we weren't all on the same page.

Expanding on our example, let's add my Studio Time in here as well... on Friday. I picked this because it was a day I didn't have any recurring meetings.

But because we weren't both heads down at the same time, and we collaborate on a lot together, we distracted each other during our respective Studio Times.

Studio Time 2 Person Example

Other people booked "important" meetings over Studio Time, Slack messages came in, emails were firing.

We neglected to understand that the most important part of team members being able to carve out this extremely valuable Deep Work time, was actually defining the times and the ways in which team members should collaborate with each other.

The breakthrough was getting the whole company on the same schedule.

We realized that if we didn't get everyone in sync, this was never going to work.

So this year at our all hands summit in January, we presented a plan for what our Deep Work & Collab Time schedule would look like going forward.

Deep Work & Collab Time shared schedule

I was honestly nervous about how it would be received by the team.

I wasn't sure if everyone would see the value. And for this strategy to work, you need EVERYONE to buy into it.

We presented the plan, and I was so happy hearing from folks all over the company that it was really resonating. They all seemed genuinely excited to be able to carve out dedicated time when they could get in their flow and really do their best work. So we all bought in and gave it a shot.

People did have healthy questions.

The biggest questions were two which we had anticipated... how would this work for folks on the Customer Success team? And what does this mean for people who work in different timezones?

First, the Customer Success team members, which make up about a third of our company, are on a bit of a different schedule.

It's unrealistic to think that they could ever carve out an entire day to do heads down work. Their roles focus on supporting our students and our corporate clients. So they are sort of always "on call".

But, what I loved, was that even though this team wasn't going to see the same direct benefits that our Product and Marketing teams would, they still got it, and they were still visibly excited.

Our Customer Success team bought in 100%, and they work on a similar schedule. They're collaborating with the rest of the company during Collab Time, and during Deep Work Time, they're giving the rest of the team the space they need to do their best work.

For folks who live in other timezones, the schedule we came up with works pretty well, with one notable exception.

Most of the team is in timezones between the East Coast and the West Coast in the US. So 1-5PM Eastern is a time when almost all of us are online. That's when we have the bulk of our Collab Time.

Deep Work time looks different for people in different timezones. They tend to work their local business hours. For them, Deep Work time is basically all of their working time outside of the dedicated Collab Time hours.

I said there was one notable exception. We have an employee in Europe who has no working hours that overlap with our West Coast employees, and minimal overlap with our East Coast hours. His manager takes extra care to support him, but luckily he's a total stud... bright, great judgment, and comfortable problem solving on his own. The TLDR on this... Collab Time is easier to accomplish when you've got significant overlap. But you can still make it work with a global company.

What it's like during Deep Work Time.

During Deep Work time, everyone is executing on their own, using that time to do their best uninterrupted, focused work.

They are not expected to be checking Slack or email, and we don’t have any meetings.

This creates long, uninterrupted blocks of time where team members can get into their ideal flow state and do their best work.

What it's like during Collab Time.

During Collab Time, it feels pretty much like a regular day at any other company.

This is when we have our meetings… manager 1 on 1s, planning, project status, etc.

Team members are collaborating on Slack and email, and sharing documents back and forth.

One nuance is during Collab Time we prepare for Deep Work Time, communicating needs and delivering work to our teammates.

How we landed on our current schedule.

Like I said before, most of our company is online between 1 and 5pm Eastern. So we put most of our Collab Time within that window.

We frontloaded Collab Time at the beginning of the week so we can sync on priorities, have manager 1 on 1s, important project meetings, and help unblock each other for our Deep Work later in the week.

We also kept Thursday afternoon open for Collab Time when needed, so that folks wouldn't go too long without being able to sync up on any blockers.

Tuesday tends to be our heavy meeting day. We liked stacking Tuesday with meetings, to keep the rest of the week as open as possible. Almost all of our recurring meetings fall on Tuesday. It's also a day people are less likely to be on vacation compared to Friday and Monday.

How we handle emergencies.

Stuff happens.

If our website went down, we wouldn’t wait until the next Collab Time to reach out to Engineering to fix it. We’re on it immediately.

So we’ve made sure to be clear about what constitutes an actual emergency and what doesn’t.

And we’re clear about escalation channels to use if an actual emergency happens. Example: if the site is down, get Engineering and Leadership on SMS immediately!

This almost never comes up, but it's important to have a playbook if it does.

Being remote or hybrid makes this a lot easier.

Our company is 100% remote.

We’re not near each other, so we disrupt each other less. Distractions have to be more deliberate.

Hybrid cultures might be able to do this well, with Collab Time in person and Deep Work done remotely. I could see that being amazing actually.

It’s probably still possible for fully onsite teams, but getting true Deep Work time is likely more difficult in a busy office. And why would you tell people to come to an office and then not talk to anyone for an entire day. Just go hybrid :)

How it's going so far.

We've been doing this for all of Q1 and part of Q2, and I'd say so far so good.

I personally love it, and have heard good feedback from much of the team.

It seems like we're getting great creative work out of folks, and output feels high too. The team is really delivering great work, and they seem happy.

I'm sure there have been bumps that I don't know about. And I'm sure there are things we can optimize. But in general, this has felt like a huge win and I couldn't see going back.

Keys to success if you want to implement this at your company.

Full Company Buy-In: This doesn’t work unless you get EVERYONE onboard. If you're not in sync, you'll be distracting each other at the wrong times, and it will cost you everything.

A Proactive Team:To go offline for a day, you need to plan ahead. What do you need from others? What do others need from you?

We tell our team members if they forget to prepare for Deep Work and realize they needed something from someone else, that is not an emergency. That's a failure to plan.

An Empowered Team: Customer-facing team members need decision-making power and clear policies for when and how to escalate.

We let people know the preferred decision making frameworks, give them guard rails, and empower them to own their areas. Not only does this limit up the chain approvals, it just makes for more effective, happier team members.

An Emergency Playbook:Most of the time, you won't need it. But you'll be glad to have it when you do. And you really shouldn't approach this without a good plan for your answer to the question... "what's the worst thing that could happen while most of the team is offline?"

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