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Effective Strategies for Addressing Meeting Overload

During the pandemic, virtual meetings became a dominant part of the workday for much of the workforce. (In fact, Zoom alone had "300 million daily Zoom meeting participants" by April 2020.1) A survey conducted in July 2020 of 3.1 million workers who went remote following work-from-home orders during the pandemic found that, when compared to prepandemic levels, employees' average workdays were 48.5 minutes longer and included 13 percent more meetings.2 Recent research on "Zoom fatigue" points to physiological factors -- "excessive amounts of close-up eye gaze, cognitive load, increased self-evaluation from staring at video of oneself, and constraints on physical mobility" -- that make virtual meetings considerably more draining than their in-person counterparts.3

Although it's easy to point to Zoom fatigue as the cause of the nation's collective meeting overload, the reality is that pandemic practices simply exacerbated preexisting poor meeting practices. For example, "poorly organized meetings" cost companies in the USA over $399 billion in 2018 alone.4 Additionally, schedules riddled with meetings render high-value "deep work" nearly impossible, forcing employees either to abandon cognitively demanding tasks or to complete them outside of working hours.

As offices continue opening up and many adapt to a hybrid workforce, organizations should prioritize learning how to reduce employee time spent in meetings (virtual or otherwise) and how to increase the effectiveness of those meeting. The following strategies can help companies combat meeting overload and eliminate unnecessary drains on productivity.

Define Goals and Determine Format

A meeting is the ideal venue for brainstorming, relationship-building, finding consensus quickly, or fielding a high volume of questions. If a meeting's purpose doesn't explicitly pertain to one of those goals, another communication method (such as Slack, e-mail, or a phone call) might be more appropriate. The urgency and complexity of the subject can also help determine whether a meeting is necessary.

Clarify Key Stakeholders

Once a meeting is deemed necessary, identify its primary stakeholders (keeping in mind that the most productive meetings usually involve just five to eight people5). If the answer to the question "If this person were to cancel, would I reschedule the meeting?" is yes, they should be included. Individuals who are intimately involved in the project or who can provide valuable insight or authority should participate in the meeting; those who simply need to be informed can get that information afterward from meeting notes and recordings, and from follow-up e-mail.

Find the Right Time

When it comes to completing tasks and accomplishing creative work, people tend to be most productive between 9 a.m. and 11 a.m.6 Scheduling meetings in the afternoon protects that valuable time and helps people knock out their most important tasks; however, if the purpose of the meeting is to find a creative solution, innovate, or ideate, holding it in the mid-morning may be preferable. (Of course, working across multiple time zones makes scheduling meetings more complicated, particularly when dealing with a global workforce.)

Another important factor to consider is meeting length. When meetings are too long, participants may lose focus and interest. Parkinson's Law -- "work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion" -- explains why meetings seem to be "time wasters": when a meeting agenda that should take five minutes to cover, for example, is allotted an entire hour, it will usually take up all (or at least most) of that hour. Shorter meeting durations can give employees more between-meeting time to take breaks and to get their other work done.

Leadership and group facilitators are responsible for ensuring that meetings begin and end on time -- an important sign of respect for all involved. To keep meetings focused and to make the most of participants' time together, meeting invitations should include both the agendas and instructions for any pre-meeting preparations (such as reading an introduction to the topic or conducting preliminary research).

Best Practices for Meetings

  • The best work is often collaborative, and effective meetings are foundational to organizational success. The following best practices can help participants make their time together as effective as possible:
  • Designate someone to lead the meeting, ensure adherence to the schedule and agenda, and respectfully prompt attendees to remain fully engaged in the discussion.
  • Have the leader take detailed notes of the meeting (or assign a scribe to do so).
  • Use agendas to ensure that attendees show up prepared and conversations focus specifically on desired results.
  • Provide pre-meeting preparation assignments (such as reviewing relevant documents before the meeting) so meeting time can be saved for questions and clarifications.
  • Use the first minute or two of the meeting to restate the meeting goals to make sure everyone is on the same page (and thereby save time by having more focused discussions).
  • Afterward, send participants the meeting notes and follow-up tasks (with designated owners and due dates clearly detailed).

Best Practices for Scheduling

  • The following scheduling strategies can help people overcome their feelings of meeting overload:
  • Use a scheduling tool to pencil focus time and breaks into each week's schedule -- then utilize them!
  • Leverage audio-only attendance or create "walking meetings" to make participation easier.
  • Change calendar settings to automatically end meetings 5 to 10 minutes early.
  • Establish open-door office hours for teams and leaders to address ad hoc issues.
  • To make room for uninterrupted focused work, set recurring "no meeting" days (or half-days) or strive to batch team meetings on specific days.
  • Respect local working hours (pay attention to other time zones) when scheduling meetings.
  • Leaders should lead by example by reevaluating meeting cadence, ensuring that meetings start and end on time, and striving for productivity.
  • Meeting participants should protect their own productivity by learning to say no (or at least "not yet") to meetings or proposing new times for them.

Gather to Connect Beyond Work

The last thing many people want is a forced happy hour. That said, culture is the lifeblood of any organization, and social get-togethers can create meaningful connections among employees and opportunities for them to decompress. Especially in light of the isolation and sense of being overwhelmed that many workers experienced over the past year, many employees may welcome opportunities to connect with each other to chat about anything but work and find social gatherings to be both rejuvenating and helpful for building relationships with colleagues. Some of the possible social activities that can take place in person or online include live music shows that engage the audience with the artists, curated DJ sessions, movie watch parties, trivia nights, escape rooms, and gaming sessions. Virtual meeting spaces that are designed for small-group socializing (such as Hubbub) can give people a welcome break from work calls that often have dozens of participants and allow only one person to speak at a time.

Meeting overload can leave anyone feeling both over capacity and under productive. Eliminating unnecessary meetings and increasing the efficiency of the meetings that remain can help people find the time and space they need both for themselves and for their work.

1 Zoom. 2020. "90-Day Security Plan Progress Report: April 22." Zoom blog, blog.zoom.us/90-day-security-plan-progress-report-april-22/.

2Evan DeFilippis et al. 2020. "Collaborating During Coronavirus: The Impact of COVID-19 on the Nature of Work." National Bureau of Economic Research website, www.nber.org/papers/w27612.

3Jeremy N. Bailenson. 2021. "Nonverbal Overload: A Theoretical Argument for the Causes of Zoom Fatigue." Technology, Mind, and Behavior, 2(1), tmb.apaopen.org/pub/nonverbal-overload/release/2.

4Doodle. 2019. "The State of Meetings 2019." Doodle blog, en.blog.doodle.com/state-of-meetings-2019/.

5Paul Axtell. 2018. "The Most Productive Meetings Have Fewer Than 8 People." Harvard Business Review website, June 22, hbr.org/2018/06/the-most-productive-meetings-have-fewer-than-8-people.

6The Redbooth Team. 2017. "Everybody's Working for the Weekend, But When Do You Actually Get Work Done?" Redbooth blog, November 15, redbooth.com/blog/your-most-productive-time.

Topics: Productivity, Meetings

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