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What Happened When Zapier Cancelled Meetings for a Week? (Hint: Not Much)

November 21st, 2022 · 11 comments

Several readers pointed me toward a recent NPR Marketplace segement about a fully-remote tech company called Zapier that tried an interesting experiment last summer: they cancelled all meetings for a week.

“When I heard from leadership that we were going to experiment with a week with no Zoom meetings, all I felt was excited anticipation,” explained Ellie Huizenga, a content strategiest at Zapier.

“Did that mean that you could just go into your Outlook or your Google Calendar or whatever you use and just zap all your meetings?,” asked Kai Ryssdal, the host of Marketplace, with thinly-veiled jealously.

“Kind of, Yeah,” replied Huizenga, before elaborating:

“Our leadership team sent a Slack message giving details about how the week was going to look for the entire company. Once that announcement came from leadership, Caitlin, my manager, reached out and let me know that she was canceling our one-on-one, canceling our team meeting for that week, and then she also encouraged me to look at the other meetings that were on my Google Calendar and confirm if we could do them [asynchronously] instead of on Zoom.”

Zapier was concerned about the rising volume of appointments filling their employees’ schedules. Huizenga, in her content strategy role, spent up to ten hours a week on Zoom. Managers at the company had it much worse, with many reporting that they spent more than half of their work week participating in video conferences. Zapier wanted to find out how critical these real-time, pre-scheduled collaboration sessions really were. It was in this context that what became known as Getting Stuff Done (GSD) week was conceived.

Here’s Huizenga, in a blog post about the experiment published on the Zapier website, summarizing some of the ways she compensated for a lack of meetings during GSD week:

“Instead of my weekly 1:1, I consolidated questions for my manager and sent them to her in a direct message on Slack.

Instead of a project check-in, all team members shared their updates in the relevant Asana tasks.

Instead of a one-off strategy call, stakeholders shared their thoughts (and comments) in a Coda doc.

Instead of a project kickoff call, our project manager sent a Slack message that shared the project charter, timeline, and next steps.”

According to a post-experiment survey conducted by Zapier’s “People Ops” team, these types of alternatives ended up working well. As they reported:

  • 80% of respondents would want to do another GSD week in the future.

  • 80% of respondents achieved their goal(s) for the week.

  • 89% of respondents found communication to be about as effective during GSD week as during a typical week.

This last data point is the most important. One of the most consistent things I’ve learned studying the impact of digital communication technology on the workplace is that it’s easy for convenient habits — “I’ll shoot you a meeting invite” — to become ubiquitous. Just because certain behaviors are common, however, doesn’t mean that they are, to borrow a phrase from the Zapier experiment, the best way to get stuff done.

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A Humble Request: a reporter from the Financial Times is interested in hearing stories from people who have attempted the types of techniques I discuss in Deep Work and A World Without Email in their own teams or companies. If you have a case study to share about your experiences combatting the hyperactive hive mind, you can send her an email directly at  courtney.weaver@ft.com (If you do send her a message, however, please consider cc’ing me at author@calnewport.com as well: I love to hear these tales! I always learn a lot.)

11 thoughts on “What Happened When Zapier Cancelled Meetings for a Week? (Hint: Not Much)

  1. Tony Iannone says:

    I’m a school teacher and would love to see this concept make it to education!

    1. Heat says:

      Same here! What I need is time to think, plan, and provide meaningful feedback to my students…

    2. Hals says:

      So am I! I often find when I’m reading Cal’s work that I feel some of what he says doesn’t apply to me because I am not corporate. Plenty of it DOES apply, but there are caveats and differences. For example, I would say I get quite a few emails each day, and my school relies heavily on email for communication, but because I am teaching I can’t check it all day, and I don’t think I receive or send as many emails as the averages Cal has mentioned in some of his work. Still, there are lots of meetings and plenty of things can change so we have more time to focus.

      I remember a specific instance of this always-on hive mind mentality as it applies to education, at another school I worked at somewhat recently. All that year, teachers had to cover other teachers’ classes when they were absent because our school did not hire subs, at all. Coverage updates would be sent out via email, often multiple times per day, if a teacher had to go home sick, for example (which happened a LOT that year – COVID illnesses and stress). Once, I missed a coverage assignment mid-day because I was already covering another class and my day was so busy I had no time to check my email constantly for updates. Well, I got chastised for it; one of the admin told me I missed my coverage assignment and to “make sure you’re checking your email.” This was absolutely maddening because I did in fact check my email regularly, frequently, way too much than a teacher should be expected to, and yet I still missed the assignment because I was, you know, BUSY TEACHING. Absolutely ridiculous. Updates like that should be announced via intercom or if that is not feasible, have someone go around with a piece of paper (which they did do a few times and it was great in my opinion)!

      Anyway, I would really love to hear from Cal himself or a school teacher about how his advice applies to schoolteachers specifically.

      1. Hals says:

        I typed this up in a Google doc beforehand so there were space between paragraphs instead of a wall of text, but it published as a wall of text anyway, argh…

  2. Arjun says:

    Cal, this is completely unrelated. But I wanted to let you know about the Quantum Boy channel on YouTube who I think you’d identify with. He seems to be a Deep Work kind of guy.

  3. Tom Larsen says:

    The idea of dropping most meetings sounds interesting. Two questions:

    1. How could the meeting-less approach be quantified on relatively objective metrics compared to the control (meeting-full) approach? The survey categories listed – would want to do it again, achieved goals, good communications experience – are vague and regrettably our self-perceptions of time use and productivity are often inaccurate. However, this kind of experimentation is promising.

    2. Could the meeting-less approach work as an ongoing long-term change, or is it the kind of approach best applied once every month / quarter / etc.?

  4. Pau Rullan says:

    We at Twilio have the concept of a «think week» that goes on a very similar way:
    https://www.twilio.com/blog/twilions-participate-in-think-week

  5. Thomas says:

    Hi,

    regarding your humble request: I don’t have a case study for a whole company or a team, but I have my own experience.

    I read all your books while doing my doctorate and now I work for probably one of the top 5 hardware high-tech companies in the world.

    During my time in academia (participating in research projects; coordinating the manufacturing of a complete experimental facility; tutoring students, etc.) I scheduled and planned my private and work life in an analog way: a calendar and a notebook (block schedule). I left my smartphone (in which I only have Whatsapp to communicate with my family back home in South America) either in the car or at home checked my e-mail account once a day never missed a single due date, milestone, meeting or appointment. I worked the first four hours a day in deep work activities and dedicated the rest of the day to administrative and low-level activities. I tried to be consequent and disciplined most of the time, I could not maintain the high level work all the time. I was “owner” of my own time and I had the liberty to adjust my schedule to my work needs.

    When starting to work in industry that changed. I was sent to remote work because of the pandemics. I was introduced to the MS Teams world and an excessive use (abuse?) of e-mail communication with the expectation of some colleagues to answer them within a few hours (“we need the info/data”). I lost control of my agenda and schedule. My analog system just didn’t work anymore. Just too many actions and projects to manage and external colleagues to supervise. Bye bye four-hour deep work routine, welcome fast-fast processing of tons of information and fully scheduled Outlook calendars (I’m not joking here with fully scheduled).
    Until I reached the reddish yellow warning zone of non-productivity. What drove me crazy was the “project hopping” that I was being forced to, by having meetings of different projects on the same day. I was just not getting the depth my project leaders and my boss were expecting from me.

    I talked to my boss and he told me to aggressively and actively defend my time. If I’m feeling non-productive, change my habits and adapt. So that I did.

    I started asking peer-colleagues and talking to more experienced colleagues. I noticed two types of (successful and renowned) colleagues. First, the ones who actively blocked their Outlook-calendars on purpose so nobody can send a meeting request. Second, the ones who left their calendars free, but reject every meeting request if the required information and/or questions are not explicitly posed. By writing those detailed meeting request you often noticed that a meeting is not necessary (a short e-mail will do) or you may even come to the answer your were looking for by yourself (some kind of judo-move by those more experienced colleagues). It prevents you to just impulsively send meeting requests without thinking.

    I chose to be the second type of worker. I defined “project days” where I would only – and only work on project A. I would reject any meeting request of project B for that day, unless the meeting request has been formulated as described above and the topic is actually urgent AND important.

    By spending time (two days in a row) in project A I could let my thoughts to “dive into” the topic. I would let my brain process the information during night and wake up with new and novel ideas. I would block-schedule my next day the evening before and stick to it with the pomodoro-technique.

    I started using MS Teams task planner for weekly actions and OneNote as my home-base for quarterly tasks and thought depository. During the day, however, I still work with my analog notebook (I am a kinesthetic thinker – I need the hand movement) keeping track of tasks and clearing my mind from daily thoughts. I then migrate those to my OneNote, like Dumbledore’s thought bowl 😉

    After implementing this methodology and routine I started noticing that A LOT of colleagues do – conceptually – the same (the tools may differ). My problem was that from home (remember, I started my job working remotely) I just didn’t “watch” my colleagues work.

    I treat at home my smartphone as an old-school landline telephone (it just does not move from that place) and now my next step is to – at least – define 1 or 2 hours of deep work a day and to learn speed reading and to improve my information retention.

    Since I adapted I got more productive, efficient and effective.

    I hope it helps to someone.

    Best regards,
    Thomas

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