Death by a thousand meetings: How to reduce video-call overload

Zoom Gloom: Meetings are no substitute for strong collaboration. Death by a thousand meetings: How to reduce video-call overload.

Death, a thousand meetings

Pre-pandemic, white-collar workers felt meeting exhaustion. Then came Zoom fatigue. Now, they’re experiencing a bit of both, sometimes at the same time.

In this new stage of work, during which some people are back in the office, others are hybrid and some are permanently remote, many workers are being bombarded by an onslaught of meetings. And a lot of those meetings are now on video services like Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Google Meet. But back-to-back meetings often breed exhaustion, a feeling of decreased productivity and sometimes even dread, leaving many to wonder how to escape death by meeting.

“We’re in uncharted water,” said Steven Rogelberg, who teaches 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 meetings, which rapidly grew when workers were locked down during the pandemic, has continued despite many white-collar workers returning to the office. Microsoft recently reported that in the spring of 2022, the number of video-enabled Teams meetings per week more than doubled globally for the average user since the start of the pandemic. And there was no evidence of a reversal 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-meeting Wednesdays and purged all meetings with more than three people, encouraging a temporary pause before anyone could add them back. And TechSmith, a Michigan-based tech firm, recently said it boosted productivity by piloting a month without meetings.

So how should workers think about their future video meetings? Can you push back on them? And if the boss is asking for these meetings, what can a worker do?

Review all recurring meetings on your calendar. Consider which are necessary and effective, and make changes as needed, Rogelberg said. This is more effective than canceling all meetings or implementing arbitrary no-meeting times, he added. Those rules often lead to violations and an overwhelming number of meetings on the days they are allowed.

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

But getting rid of all meetings may be a good start for an audit, said Leslie Perlow, a professor of leadership at Harvard Business School. That forces workers to consciously consider which to add back.

Rogelberg boils this down to three questions: Is there a compelling purpose to bring people together? Does the content of the meeting require engagement and interaction? And is there no alternative communication method that would be just as effective? A meeting should only be scheduled if the answers to all three questions are yes.

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