Science-Backed Strategies to Confront Meeting Overload
In April 2020, Zoom made headlines when it reported a 50% surge in users over the course of one month, reaching approximately 300 million each day (a figure that was later replaced with 300 million “daily meeting participants”). Semantics oversight aside, a 50% increase in meeting participants is astounding — yet few were likely surprised by this report of sudden meeting overload. In fact, for many newly-remote working professionals, it seemed like they personally attended several million Zoom meetings each week.
Okay — that may be a slight exaggeration. But if that resonates with you, you weren’t just imagining it.
A working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research explored the impact of COVID-19 on communication patterns from 3.1 million workers who went remote following work-from-home orders. The study found that, when compared to pre-pandemic levels, employees’ average workdays were 48.5 minutes longer and included 13% more meetings; there were also significant increases in internal email and in meeting sizes. Meanwhile, Stanford's research into “Zoom fatigue” cited verified physiological reasons — such as cognitive load and intense sustained eye contact — that make virtual meetings considerably more draining than their in-person counterparts.
But while it’s easy to conflate Zoom fatigue as the root cause of our collective meeting overload, the reality is that the past year has simply exacerbated pre-existing poor meeting practices. In 2019, unproductive meetings cost the U.S. $399 billion (and $58 billion in the U.K.). In addition to the financial cost of hours wasted, schedules riddled with meetings render high-value “deep work” nearly impossible, forcing employees to either abandon cognitively demanding tasks or complete them outside of working hours.
As offices continue opening up and many adapt to a hybrid workforce, a top priority should be learning how to reduce time spent in meetings — virtual or otherwise — and how to make those that do happen more effective.
Fortunately, we can combat meeting overload by following six simple steps. Below are some science-based strategies, new considerations in the age of Zoom, and tips to help maximize meeting effectiveness and eliminate unnecessary drains on productivity.
1. Define Goals and Determine Format
Meetings are the ideal format for brainstorming, relationship-building, quickly coming to a consensus, or fielding a high volume of questions. If your meeting purpose doesn’t explicitly pertain to one of these, consider another communication method, such as Slack, email, or scheduling a 5-minute phone call. Simple decision trees are helpful when determining whether or not to schedule a meeting.
2. Clarify Key Stakeholders
Once a meeting is deemed appropriate, clarify the purpose of the meeting and who the primary stakeholders are. Individuals who are intimately involved in the project or who can provide valuable insight/authority should join; those who simply need to be informed can learn from meeting notes, recordings, and follow-up emails. A Stanford meta-analysis found that the most productive meetings contain just five to eight people. Ask yourself: If this person were to cancel, would I reschedule the meeting? If so, they should be included. If not, reconsider...or include them as optional.
3. Find the Right Time
Research suggests that the hours from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. are the most productive in terms of people completing tasks and accomplishing creative work. Scheduling meetings in the afternoon helps individuals protect this time to knock out their most important tasks; however, if the purpose of the meeting is to find a creative solution or innovate/ideate, scheduling in the mid-morning may be preferable. Of course, differing time zones make this element more complicated, particularly when dealing with a diverse, global workforce. Just do your best.
Another important factor to consider is meeting length. On average, adults can only pay attention to a singular topic for 10 to 20 minutes before losing interest; that’s why TED Talks are designed to be 18 minutes long. Consider Parkinson’s Law, which theorizes that work expands to fill the time allotted, and experiment with shortened meetings — 25- and 50-minute meetings also allow for bio breaks and brief respites between heavily-scheduled days. Leadership and group facilitators are responsible for ensuring meetings begin and end on time — it’s an important sign of respect for all involved.
Additionally, to make the most out of your time together, include the agenda in the meeting invite along with required pre-work (such as reading an introduction to the topic or conducting preliminary research) to keep the meeting laser-focused and productive — and keep meeting overload at bay.
4. Optimize Impact
The best work is often collaborative, and effective meetings are foundational to organizational success. Here are some science-backed best practices to help make the most of your meeting time.
- Designate a meeting facilitator to lead the meeting, take notes (or assign a scribe), ensure time and agenda adherence, and respectfully prompt attendees to remain fully engaged in the discussion.
- Use agendas to ensure attendees show up prepared and conversations focus specifically on desired results.
- Provide pre-work such as reviewing progress reports before the meeting, saving meeting time for questions and/or clarifications.
- Re-state the meeting goals at the outset. Using the first 60-90 seconds to establish clarity and consensus saves exponentially more time on the back-end.
- Follow-up afterwards, including meeting notes and follow-up tasks with designated owners and due dates.
5. Leverage the Tools You Have
In addition to following the above strategies for scheduling meetings, consider utilizing the following tools to overcome feelings of meeting overload:
- Use Cortana or another scheduling tool to pencil in focus time and breaks into your weekly schedule — and then utilize them!
- Leverage audio-only attendance to reduce meeting overload or create a “walking meeting.”
- Change calendar settings to automatically end meetings 5-10 minutes early.
- Establish open office hours for teams and/or leaders to address ad hoc issues via open-door access.
- Establish recurring “No Meeting” days or half-days or strive to batch team meetings on specific days. Anything to make room for uninterrupted focused work.
- Respect local working hours — utilize your calendar alternate time zones.
- Leaders: Lead by example; re-evaluate meeting cadence, ensure meetings start and end on time, and strive for productivity.
- Individual contributors: Learn to say no, or at least “not yet.” Propose new times. Protect (y)our productivity.
6. Gather to Connect Beyond Work and Beyond Your Team
The last thing many people want is a forced happy hour. That said, culture is the lifeblood of any organization, and these social get-togethers create meaningful connections and opportunities to decompress. With the isolation and overwhelm so many of us have experienced over the past year, reaching out to connect with a friendly face to chat about anything but work — whether in-person or online — is rejuvenating and helps build our relationships with our colleagues.
- Organizations like BlackFret offer live music virtual shows (and in-person shows as things open back up) that engage the audience with the artists.
- Curated DJ sessions where groups can split off to chat and connect.
- Re-vamp early COVID standards like movie watch parties, team trivia, virtual escape rooms, gaming sessions, etc.
- Try different formats like Hey Hubbub for a different virtual experience. Having 30+ people on a call where only one person can speak at a time can be brutal.
When meeting overload is present, we can all feel over-capacity and under-productive. We need to give ourselves and our work family time and space, which is something we can all do — one less unnecessary meeting at a time.