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Zoom fatigue: how to rethink meetings

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Pre-pandemic, clerks felt exhausted. Then came Zoom fatigue. Now they experience a bit of both, sometimes at the same time.

In this new phase of work, where some people are back in the office, others are hybrid, and some are permanently remote, many employees are bombarded by a deluge of meetings. And many of those meetings are now on video services like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and Google Meet. But consecutive meetings often lead to exhaustion, a feeling of diminished productivity and sometimes even anxiety, leading many to wonder how to escape death by meeting.

“We’re in unfamiliar waters,” said Steven Rogelberg, a professor of organizational science, management, and psychology at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. “We just don’t know what the world of meetings looks like.”

The reliance on video conferencing, which increased rapidly as employees were locked down during the pandemic, remained despite many white-collar workers returning to the office. Microsoft recently reported that by Spring 2022, the number of video-enabled Teams meetings per week worldwide has more than doubled for the average user since the start of the pandemic. And there was no evidence of a reversal in the following six months, the company said.

Some companies are taking drastic measures to respond to meeting overload. Shopify recently encouraged employees to decline meetings, implemented no-meetings Wednesdays, and removed all meetings with more than three people, encouraging a temporary pause before anyone could add them back. And TechSmith, a Michigan-based technology company, recently said it increased productivity by testing for a month without meetings.

So how should employees feel about their future video meetings? Can you push them back? And if the boss asks for these meetings, what can an employee do?

Here’s what you can do to make video meetings more effective, reduce fatigue, and improve collaboration.

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The beginning of the year is a good time to check your meetings, work experts say.

View all recurring meetings in your calendar. Consider which ones are necessary and effective and make changes if necessary, Rogelberg said. This is more effective than canceling all meetings or entering arbitrary non-meeting times, he added. Those rules often lead to violations and an overwhelming number of gatherings on the days they are allowed.

“It’s trying to be a quick fix…and not provide the relief promised,” he said. “But do [a meeting audit] as a collective team is the best approach.”

But cutting all meetings can be a good start for an audit, says Leslie Perlow, a leadership professor at Harvard Business School. This forces employees to think consciously about what they should add.

Understand the purpose of the meeting

Before scheduling a meeting, make sure you even need one.

Rogelberg summarizes this in three questions: Is there a compelling purpose for bringing people together? Does the content of the meeting require involvement and interaction? And isn’t there an alternative communication method that is just as effective? A meeting should only be scheduled if the answers to all three questions are yes.

Otherwise, consider writing an email, sending a chat message to the group, or recording a podcast to convey information. An alternative form of collaboration is to use a shared document for time zone feedback or brainstorming.

Raffaella Sadun, a professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, said you also need to be able to answer how the meeting contributes to the team’s goals. Meetings can also increase accountability, as participants make verbal commitments to tasks and deadlines in groups, she added.

“If a meeting doesn’t include these broader and specific objectives, it’s probably redundant,” Sadun said.

Consider framing the meeting as a series of questions to understand what you’re trying to accomplish, Rogelberg said. It may be easier to gauge the success of a meeting based on the questions answered. They will also help determine who to invite.

“I’ve always wanted managers to pay for each person who needs to be at the meeting, forcing them to think about who should and shouldn’t be there,” Perlow said.

Employees may find that they are regularly invited to meetings that feel like a waste of time. Can they just say no?

“Refusing meetings sounds good in theory. But in practice, that’s a terrible position to put someone in,” Rogelberg said.

Instead, Rogelberg suggested that meeting hosts create a culture that is sensitive to the participants’ time by allowing people to attend only the parts that are relevant to them.

Invitees may have less power as they grapple with the potential consequences of declining a meeting. Asking a trusted supervisor if their presence is necessary could be a way out, Rogelberg said.

It’s all in the delivery of the message, Sadun said.

“Learn to say no, use evidence and explain why that time is needed,” she said. “Keep in mind how precious your time is.”

Meetings often just take too long. Shortening them can help people regain time, reduce fatigue, and increase effectiveness.

Hosts often schedule a meeting for pre-populated time slots provided by calendar or video applications. Instead, landlords should think about how much time is really needed.

“Everything extends to the [preset] time,” Perlow said. “Having less time will hopefully make us more strategic.”

Perlow suggested taking breaks between meetings. Instead of scheduling an hour-long meeting, make it 45 minutes.

“Quick meetings and get-togethers can be effective,” Rogelberg said. “It serves a great purpose without the tax.”

Years of back-to-back video meetings have revealed what makes the experience so exhausting.

But Jeremy Bailenson, the director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, said employees can reduce video call fatigue with some minor adjustments.

Hide the self-image first to shift the focus from yourself to the actual meeting. Research shows that when we watch ourselves, we naturally tend to judge our every move, appearance and gesture, which increases stress, Bailenson said.

He also suggested reducing the size of the video window to more accurately represent the distance between you and other people. This helps reduce the fatigue associated with nonverbal cues.

“If you leave the standard size, it forces an intimacy that we don’t have in the real world,” he said.

Make sure your setup is comfortable by adjusting lighting, seating, and keyboard or camera placement. To take the pressure off, consider meeting that require cameras to be off. This is especially helpful for parents and caregivers, Bailenson said.

“Does someone have to brush for an hour to be seen for 15 minutes?” he said. “Forcing people to be in front of the camera can have downstream effects you haven’t thought of.”

Support in facilitating and participating

To help with effectiveness, attendees can serve as model participants by helping facilitate the meeting or be effective listeners and talkers by keeping their points short and concise, Rogelberg said.

Sadun said attendees can also propose an agenda and have clear follow-ups.

Ultimately, efficient meetings come down to execution and respect for people’s time.

Consider how much time people need to think deeply versus interacting, Perlow suggested. Take advantage of the days when people are physically together for meetings.

“It would be better if people were more conscious about when they met and what they did when they were together,” she said.

Research shows that brainstorming in silence produces more and better ideas, Rogelberg said, something meeting hosts should be aware of. By setting up a shared document so that people don’t have to work in sync, everyone can better collaborate and come up with ideas.

“Be part of the solution versus the problem,” Rogelberg said.

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