Earlier this year, I started and ended a job due to one thing and one thing alone: Zoom meetings. Countless, endless, pointless, back-to-back Zoom meetings. I found myself totally depleted by the end of the day, tired in a way I’d never been in any other prior job, but also feeling like I rarely got any actual work done. I agonized over leaving — it was a job I enjoyed, where I was challenged, working with people I liked and respected. But in the end, I just couldn’t take the constant stream of video calls.
I questioned whether I was being overly dramatic. But then I heard from a friend and fellow consultant who had recently started a stint in a remote office. The work, she reported, was good, the pay was steady, but the meetings… the meetings were draining the life out of her.
Meetings, of course, have their purposes, and can even be enjoyable and productive. But like any tool, in the wrong hands, they can be a dangerous thing. This was true pre-COVID and it’s especially true now, when meetings no longer even give us a welcome respite from sitting in front of a screen for a half hour.
As things open up, it’s clear that many companies and employees are likely to embrace remote work on a part- or full-time basis. And early research has already found that in a hybrid work environment, where some workers are in the office and some are working from home, there is more employee engagement and inclusion when meetings are held virtually. But virtual meetings also run the risk of being draining, depleting, and unproductive if they’re not planned and executed properly.
The good news is that there are ways to make virtual meetings less exhausting and more productive. But before we talk about the solution, let’s get clear on what the problem is.
Zoom fatigue symptoms aren’t all in your head
There is now proof that the phenomenon of “Zoom fatigue,” that mental exhaustion that occurs after a day of videoconferencing, is real. Stanford University researchers recently published the first peer-reviewed article on the topic. They found that:
- In-person communications make our brains happier. Brain scans showed greater activity in the reward regions of the brain during in-person communications compared to virtual interactions. On the flipside, screen-based interactions can feel intense. You’re viewing someone’s head at an unnatural size, at a closer distance than you’d normally be in-person, and people are staring at you. The brain can interpret all of these factors as threats.
- Virtual interactions make it easier to zone out. People tend to pay more attention during face-to-face interactions than screen-to-screen ones (and not just because the internet browser tab is a click away).
- Screen-based interactions can make it harder to connect with others. The idiosyncrasies of telemeetings, such as lags in audio and an inability to make direct eye contact with people, can negatively impact our ability to follow and relate to other speakers.
- Our brains have to work harder to make up for lost context. The fact that we’re not getting all the nonverbal cues we’d get when we’re in the same room with a group of people means we have to expend more cognitive effort overall.
- Being forced to watch ourselves on a screen is mentally exhausting. The quirky feature popular video conferencing platforms have of defaulting to show you your own image is basically like performing in front of a mirror, which previous research has found to be stressful, particularly for women.
3 pre-planning steps to better meetings
How can we stop have meetings that drain our energy and sap our productivity?
I was well aware of the irony of my request when I reached out to Steven G. Rogelberg, PhD, author of The Surprising Science of Meetings: How You Can Lead Your Team to Peak Performance and asked if we could, well, meet. Rogelberg, besides being an author, professor at the University of North Carolina Charlotte, and TED talker, is a fellow meeting hater, and he did what I would have done: He tried to dodge my meeting request.
This, as it turns out, is proper protocol for anyone attempting to corral the unchecked, unproductive meetings in their life, as Rogelberg tole me when we eventually did meet. These are the pre-meetings steps he suggests before any meeting, virtual or otherwise:
Step one: ask if the meeting needs to happen. In meme-speak, could it be an email? “The important takeaway,” says Rogelberg, “is that it’s not just meeting virtually in and of itself that causes fatigue, but the frustration of not having our time truly valued and used effectively.”
Step two: make sure the people invited are all the people who need to be there — no more, no fewer. In an office setting there can be a tendency to over-invite entire departments, or leave someone out who needs to be there. Both end up wasting time.
Step three: once a meeting is set, have a clear agenda and stick to a timeline. For larger meetings, it can be a good idea to appoint one person to lead the discussion and another to monitor it and move things along if they’re stalling or getting sidetracked – which can feel especially brutal in a virtual setting. Rogelberg’s research has found that only around half of meeting time is effective, and that number falls off sharply when it comes to remote meetings.
Instead of scheduling calls to end five minutes early (which, as you know, never actually happens in practice!), try scheduling them to start five minutes late. This gives everyone a chance to catch their breath between calls, grab a snack, take a bio-break, excuse themselves from the call they’re still on that’s running long… etc. Atlassian’s CTO, Sri Viswanath, and his team loves it.
Expert advice on how to combat Zoom fatigue
According to Rogelberg, “A well-conducted meeting should give energy, not deplete it.” Because he had impressed on me the value of his time, I made sure I was prepared, on time, and got to the point quickly.
Though ours was a one-time-only Zoom meeting, Rogelberg noted that it’s common for employees to have multiple meetings in a day or week. Timing them becomes important. “My research found that a good cadence is meetings clustered together in the morning or afternoon with short breaks in between them,” he says.
A good cadence is meetings clustered together in the morning or afternoon with short breaks in between them.
For example, schedule meetings for 25 minutes instead of a half hour and give everyone the last five minutes to stretch, take a bathroom break, or what have you. That approach, he says, is a way to proactively mitigate Zoom fatigue, and leaves a block of time on the day for thinking, team work, and creativity. “If your employees’ days are filled nonstop with back-to-back meetings, we’re missing those opportunities,” he says.
In some cases, he points out, managers may be calling a lot of meetings to help build the “human moments” that are missing when a group of people don’t share a physical space. That can be a good thing, but quality is more important than quantity.
“Something I’ve been playing with is what I call table talk,” Rogelberg says. “At the start of a meeting, I have everyone go into breakout rooms for three minutes or less and just chit chat. Sometimes I do it twice. It’s meant to simulate what happens when you have in-person meetings. Those conversations can lead to more meaningful discourse, especially when it’s done in smaller groups.”
Zoom isn’t likely to go away, but zoom fatigue certainly can. “Meetings are incredible opportunities for organizations,” says Rogelberg. He’s also found them to be robust predictors of job satisfaction — research I can personally vouch for.
I recently started a new job, and one of the major selling points was that meetings are minimal, stay on subject, and stick to the scheduled time. I can already tell that I’m going to like it here.
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