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Paul Armstrong’s profile picturePaul Armstrong

Tips for healthy and useful meetings in tech

I got an email last week spouting nonsense about how my organization is going to require that all meetings start at 5-minutes after (e.g. 12:05 or 12:35) to help everyone be more on time. Listen, that’s just dumb. A change in what time meetings start does not change peoples’ behaviors and this is a smoke & mirrors non-solution to bigger issues with your meetings.

What does change meeting behavior is actually changing behavior. I’m a bit of a stickler about meetings. If I can, I like to instill a healthy meeting culture in teams I work with to make them understandable, helpful, and on-time. Not all meetings are bad, but I have some rules that I like to follow to ensure that they don’t become that way.

Keep in mind that I’m in no way an expert, but I’ve been in my fair share of meetings for nearly 20 years. This list of tidbits is from personal experience of what I’ve seen has worked and what hasn’t.

General meetings

  • Stay on schedule and end early.

    I get the intention of the “5-minute after” starts, but it’s just a silly time to start meetings. Instead of starting late, schedule “short meetings”, eg 25- or 50-minute meetings only.

  • Include an agenda with your meeting invitation.

    Agendas must include a desired outcome of the meeting. If you don’t yet know what that is, you’re not ready to have a meeting. An agenda also helps invitees understand whether it is important to attend the meeting or not – they may also already have a resolution for you and can reach out with it, making the whole meeting unnecessary in the first place.

  • Put a pin in off-topic discussions.

    You probably see it often – you’ve got six people in a room and two start going off on a tangentially related problem and start solving that, even though it is not related to your agenda.

    Politely interrupt, recognize that importance of the discussion, but remind the group of the purpose of this meeting and ask if it can be revisited either after the primary agenda item has been resolved or moved to another discussion time.

  • Recap the resolution in an email.

    Full meeting notes tend to be a waste of effort, and prevent the note-taker from participating in discussion. However, the meeting organizer should recap the resolution and share it with attendees and those that were unable to make the meeting. This helps both for future reference and for fact checking to double check that everyone left the meeting with the same understanding.

    Alternatively, any action items could be created as tasks or issues and prioritized on scrum/kanban boards.

    A recap can also be an unnecessary step. Use your best judgement here.

  • It’s okay to decline meetings.

    Declining meetings is hard and scary – especially for those in a more junior position. I’m not advocating for just constantly declining meetings because you hate them, but rather, knowing when it is okay to decline a meeting and providing context to the organizer.

    If you’re invited to a lot of meetings (with many attendees) and find the information is rarely useful to your position and duties, you probably don’t need to be there. Decline the meeting and ask that if your presence is necessary, that the organizer reach back out.

    Or if you have something to work on that you know is more important and timely than the meeting, because you’ve seen the agenda ahead. Don’t say “maybe” – just decline, let the organizer know that you have other priorities right now, and suggest a better day and time.

  • Meeting notes are rarely helpful.

    For general meetings, notes are not all that helpful. Instead, consider sending a short recap email with any resolutions (see previous point on recaps)

    On the other hand, meeting types that I have seen notes be helpful afterwards are those that have historical importance, like post-mortems.

    If the content of a meeting would otherwise be helpful for those who are not able to participate, a recording is much more helpful, as nothing will be missed, visual aids will be intact, and all participant’s voices will be included.


From the senior, lead, or manager side

  • Always be on time and avoid rescheduling.

    1-on-1s are less importantant to the leader side of the meeting, since typically you will have multiple of these with various people on the team and be able to get a bird’s eye view from there, so it can be tempting to brush off a 1-on-1 with some individuals in favor of other meetings or tasks, but remember that your report likely only has one of these every week or two. This is their time to have your undivided attention; breaking the schedule interrupts their flow and could signal feelings of lacking importance in your eyes.

  • Set expectations up front.

    You likely have a standing agenda of what you’re looking to get out of having 1-on-1s with your reports or team. You should be clear with each person what you’re looking for and also make it clear that this comes secondary to their needs and goals. During your first 1-on-1, find out what it is each person is looking to get out of their time with you.

  • Meeting notes are helpful!

    For other meetings, I tend to shy away from requiring meeting notes. For 1-on-1s, however, they can be incredibly helpful. These notes should not be a long detailed list, but a bullet point or two about progress, what’s next, and what we’re thinking about long-term. That’s all. These notes can be helpful for both parties to see progression over time.

    When I’m leading 1-on-1s, I scribble things into a notebook during the conversation (because typing is distracting) and then move them to a shared doc immediately after the meeting.

  • Feedback is a gift.

    Each of these meetings should include an exchange of feedback and it is your responsibility to ensure this happens. Start by offering something that the other person is doing well. Explain how they’re impacting the others, the team, the product, etc and ensure they know it is appreciated and to keep it up. I like to finish the meetings with bringing up something that is not going well, but focusing on what can be done to turn that around into positive feedback next time.

    But remember, your 1-on-1s are not a 1-way street! It may be hard to get unfiltered feedback from everyone, but continue to ask. Ensure others know that your most important work is helping them and the best way for you to know how to do that is to know what you’re doing well and what you can do differently or better.

From the more junior or IC-side

  • Plan ahead.

    The agenda for your 1-on-1 should be set by you. Every day that you have a 1-on-1 with a manager or team lead, spend 15 minutes (maybe when you just sit down at the beginning of the day) to jot down a couple of bullet points for an agenda.

    If you’re meeting with a technical leader, this is a great chance to do a short code pairing session, get an in-person review, or have them walk through their work for you.

  • Ask for feedback.

    You should never be leaving a 1-on-1 without some actionable feedback, both positive and negative. Praise is wonderfule and it is great to help understand what you’re doing that is going well, but walk out of this meeting by focusing on how to turn the negative feedback around. If it’s unclear what you can do to do better, ask!

  • The benefits of these meetings are up to you.

    1-on-1s are your time to have your manager/lead’s undivided attention. What do you want to get out of this time with them? Let them know regularly how things are going and what you feel like you’re missing out on or need to help step up your game.

    Lastly, don’t decline these meetings. Your manager/lead may have important timely feedback that is best given in person, with context.

Parting thoughts

This post actually started out sounding like I was going to rant about how poor meeting culture can be in many organizations, but ended up spurring me to be a little more positive. I hope that something in here is useful for making meetings better and more useful.