Remote work meeting overload: 10 ways to ease your team's pain

Remote meeting overload? You're not alone. Consider this expert advice on how to rethink meetings – to reduce team fatigue, reclaim time, and boost efficiency
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Zoom fatigue is real. According to experts who study virtual collaboration, video meetings require more concentration than their real-life counterparts. In addition to concentrating on the content, there’s also the singular challenge of also focusing on video of yourself – something that doesn’t happen in face-to-face meetings, notes Dick Axelrod, who along with his wife Emily co-authored Let’s Stop Meeting Like This: Tools to Save Time and Get More Done.

There also may be an ergonomic downside. “Working at your dining room table is different from working at your office desk,” Axelrod points out, “and using a small laptop is different from using a large size monitor.”

And guess what? Many of us have been meeting more often during the COVID crisis. In a survey early this year by virtual work consultancy Vitira, six out of ten respondents reported that the number of meetings they attend has increased significantly since the pandemic began.

Throw in the fact that meetings were already a growing drain on IT organizations prior to the pandemic, and you can understand why everyone is exhausted at this point. “Remember all that stuff you’ve known forever about what makes meetings more effective, that you never bothered to do – having an agenda, even-handed participation, coming prepared? All of that is more important online because the flaws in the process are even more obvious online,” says Karin Reed, a broadcast journalist turned executive coach and co-author of Suddenly Virtual: Making Remote Meetings. “The old best practices for effective meetings are common sense but uncommonly practiced. Not doing them now, in virtual meetings, leads to virtual drudgery and less productivity.”

[ Does remote work leave you exhausted? Read our related story: Remote exhaustion: 13 tips to reduce fatigue. ]

Remote work: 10 tips to rethink meetings

Now is the time to get serious about improving your meeting culture. Elizabeth Freedman, executive advisor and head of consulting at executive coaching and assessment firm Bates Communications (recently acquired by global strategy consultancy BTS), says, “One of the most important things that leaders can do right now that would have a significant, powerful, and positive impact on the company is to have fewer, better meetings – more than any other corporate initiative push for growth, or effort to reduce costs.”

Poor or excessive virtual meetings drain an organization’s energy, engagement, and expenses. Here’s what you can do about them in 2021:

1. Conduct a meeting audit

Make a list of all the meetings you currently lead or attend and eliminate those that are low value.

Not sure where to start? Freedman suggests pulling up your calendar and asking questions. Are there any meetings that can be killed without further discussion? Would there be consequences if you stopped attending the meeting? How would meeting attendees evaluate its effectiveness? Can you describe the purpose of the meeting in one sentence? Do attendees prepare for the meeting?

2. Don't substitute a meeting for connection

“Businesses need to introduce collaboration workspaces where informal updates can occur 24-7, synchronously, and asynchronously.”

“My key recommendation is businesses should train managers and employees that meetings are not a substitute for informal office chats or a water cooler,” says Cynthia Watson (formerly Spraggs), CEO of Vitira and book author. “Businesses need to introduce collaboration workspaces where informal updates can occur 24-7, synchronously, and asynchronously.”

3. Go back to basics

Consider each meeting’s purpose, necessary attendees, and length before considering setting it up. Then choose the right platform for the purpose. “Failure to consider these factors contribute to energy-sapping meetings, be they in person or online,” says Axelrod. These seemingly small improvements (like including only essential attendees) can make a big impact, says Freedman.

[ Get exercises and approaches that make disparate teams stronger. Read the digital transformation ebook: Transformation Takes Practice. ]

4. Send agendas ahead of time

This is an oldie but a goodie. And it bears repeating as meetings have grown even less formal during the remote era. “People do not want to be caught off-guard or appear to be stupid during a meeting,” says Axelrod. “Having meeting materials ahead of time increases certainty, which in turn reduces meeting stress.”

5. Embrace meeting excellence

“High-performing teams create guidelines for how they will engage with each other during meetings – from defining a meeting purpose, to making decisions, to handling conflict, to preparing for meetings,” says Freedman. “The best teams we’ve worked with don’t leave good meetings up to chance or assume people will just automatically know what to do. They take the time to get very concrete and specific about defining the relevant behaviors, processes, or actions that will create meeting success.”

One executive team that wanted to ensure that the voice of the customer was better integrated into strategy, products, and services built that goal into meetings. “They developed a list of concrete meeting behaviors and actions to ensure a customer orientation was reflected throughout the process,” Freedman says. “Today, if you attend a meeting at this company – no matter what the meeting topic – you’ll hear stories about customers, see a ‘customer segment’ built into every agenda, and hear meeting participants ask questions about how the customer perspective was considered when a new initiative or project was being proposed.”

6. Incorporate breaks

“Virtual meeting technology has enabled back-to-back meetings like never before,” says Joe Allen, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of Utah, director for the Center for Meeting Effectiveness, and co-author of Suddenly Virtual: Making Remote Meetings Work. “Neuroscience confirms that humans need time to cognitively switch gears.”

“Taking frequent breaks allows time for the brain to go idle, which increases the possibility that insights will occur.”

A soon-to-be-released academic study included in the book found that individuals need at least five minutes of recovery time after a good meeting and 17 minutes after a bad one. Long meetings should also be broken into parts. “For meetings that are longer than one hour, take breaks every hour,” Axelrod says. “Taking frequent breaks allows time for the brain to go idle, which increases the possibility that insights will occur.”

[For more neuroscience-based tactics to run meetings that are less painful and more productive, check out How to run meetings that hurt less.]

7. Normalize turning off the camera

Sure, face time is important, but allowing employees to dial in can reduce the pressure to “look good” on-screen and thereby relieve associated tension. “We’ve seen a number of recent articles and research on how to alleviate stress from meeting on video. The easiest solution? Turn it off,” says Watson of Vitira. “Unless you are engaging or connecting with people, the video camera just adds distraction, creates anxiety, and increases exhaustion.”

8. Inject some humanity

“Start your meetings with the question ‘How are you?’ and actually listen to people,” Allen suggests. “That social lubrication where we catch up in the hall or the break room has been lost and must be re-introduced. Remember to connect, beyond running down a checklist of updates, projects, or tasks.”

This is particularly important when real social interaction is at a minimum. “Some of our clients start their meetings with a quick round of weekend updates. Others start their meetings with questions like: What would you like people to know about you that they wouldn’t know by looking at you?” says Axelrod. “These questions build connections between people, which in turn makes the work go smoothly.”

9. Assign rotating roles

This can increase engagement and also improve outcomes. Some roles to consider, says Freedman: notetaker, meeting facilitator, timekeeper, and devil’s advocate (someone appointed to deliberately challenge or present an opposing view to an idea).

10. Try to establish meeting-free days

If that’s not possible, cut meeting times in half or reduce their frequency. “At a minimum, better manage meeting time itself,” advises Freedman. “Use timed agendas and timekeepers to prevent meetings from running late. Make sure you know the strengths and weaknesses of your platform and that you know how its features work. Have a backup plan in case the technology goes down. Nothing frustrates participants more than technological glitches.”

[ Need to make more thoughtful decisions? Download our new resource: 4 styles of decision-making: A leader’s guide. ]

Stephanie Overby is an award-winning reporter and editor with more than twenty years of professional journalism experience. For the last decade, her work has focused on the intersection of business and technology. She lives in Boston, Mass.