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Putting an end to meeting overload

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Here’s a statistic that might catch your attention (if you happen to be reading this while not in a meeting): According to Zoom, daily meeting participants exploded from 10 million a day in late 2019 to 300 million by mid-2020 – an increase of 2900%. During that same timeframe, remote workers started to suffer from “Zoom burnout” and “Zoom fatigue” – the feeling of being tired, mentally drained, cranky, and unproductive after a day of video calls.  Sound familiar? Now that we’re another year into the pandemic, workers are still suffering from meeting overload, with no end in sight.

Meeting overload certainly isn’t anything new.  According to the Harvard Business Review, meetings have been steadily increasing in length and frequency over the past 50 years. In 2017, executives spent nearly 23 hours a week in meetings, up from 10 hours in the 1960s. In a more recent article, managers reported that 83% of their meetings were unproductive. That statistic alone is enough to make any CEO cringe.

The remote work model has further exacerbated the problem, with extra meetings replacing casual conversations that used to happen in the office. Weekly meeting time has increased by an additional three meetings per week, per employee. One-on-one meetings and regular check-ins have also increased, as managers and teams use meetings to help remote workers feel a sense of connection. Though well-meaning, too many of these “extra” meetings can contribute to stress, demotivation, and loss of focused work time.

So, if most workers are on meeting overload, why do we still feel the need to attend and hold so many meetings? According to the same Harvard Business Review article, there are a few psychological reasons people schedule and attend so many meetings. The first is fear of missing out, a fear that can be especially real for remote workers. If you don’t attend a meeting, you might fear that colleagues will forget about you or judge your reasons for not attending. Another problem is “selfish urgency” – scheduling a meeting whenever it’s convenient for you and assigning more urgency to things than they deserve.  Sometimes, scheduling meetings is just a cultural force of habit – it’s how we’ve gotten used to spending our time at work.

The secret to regaining some sanity may be found in asking yourself a few simple questions the next time you’re invited to a meeting:

  1. Do you have anything to contribute? (Or are you just listening in?)
  2. Will you have anything to gain that you can’t get from meeting notes?
  3. Does attending this meeting help you achieve a goal or help establish your value?

If your answer is no to these questions, decline the meeting. To resolve your fear of missing out, try providing your thoughtful input before the meeting or following up with the meeting host after you’ve read the meeting notes. Also, if a reoccurring meeting has been on your calendar for months, now is the time to reassess whether that meeting is just a comfortable habit or if it’s really necessary. 

 On the flip side, if you’re scheduling a meeting, ask yourself these questions:

  1. Can I resolve this without having a meeting (i.e., send a non-urgent email, ask a question on chat, or pick up the phone and make a quick call)?
  2. Who is essential to the meeting? Does each attendee have something valuable to contribute?

Ideally, try to keep your meeting length and agenda short and the attendee list small. This helps meetings stay on track and have purpose. The most productive employees say they attend fewer meetings and reserve time in their day to do “deeper” work, so it’s up to each of us to help create the space and time for everyone to be productive while working from home.

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