Hybrid work: 7 signs that meeting should be an email

Are you using - or abusing - Zoom calls? Leaders must take a fresh look at their meeting strategy, communications experts say. Consider this checklist before you send your next meeting invite
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Zoom fatigue tips

Pointless meetings are nothing new; they’re so pervasive that surviving another meeting that should have been an email reached meme status back in the 2000’s. However, this problem risks reaching epidemic status in the age of Zoom. With the ongoing shift to hybrid work - combining office and remote work - video calls are going nowhere soon, so leaders need to know when to use them and when to skip directly to email or chat.

Many people are not using collaboration tools for informal updates.

Six out of ten individuals surveyed early this year by virtual work consultancy Vitira reported that the number of meetings they must attend has increased significantly since the pandemic began. “Most say that the ad-hoc chats they had at the office have been replaced by formal meetings,” says Cynthia Watson (formerly Spraggs), CEO of Vitira and author of a book on how to work from home, “which indicates that many are not using collaboration tools for informal updates.”

Video stepped in as an important stopgap in the early days of remote work ­– and for good reason. “It is the next best thing to being there,” says Suzanne Bates, founder of Bates Communications (recently acquired by global strategy consultancy BTS) and managing director of BTS Boston. “As human beings, we are wired to look for non-verbal signals. Body language, eye contact, voice all are critical tools we need to interpret and respond, and video is the key to that in the virtual work world.”

[ Remote work can lead some people to slip into micromanager behaviors. Read also: Are you micromanaging your remote or hybrid team? 10 questions.]

The trouble with Zoom meetings

Video tools themselves aren't a problem, but the way they are used can be.

Video tools themselves aren’t a problem, but the way they are used (or abused) can be. “Zoom fatigue is not due to a problem with Zoom and similar platforms, but user error,” 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. “Not every human touchpoint needs to be a video meeting. There’s a huge need to be more strategic in determining when a video meeting is required.”

The problem is that ­­– prior to last year – “our predominant way of thinking about meetings is in-person meetings,” says Dick Axelrod, who along with his wife Emily co-authored Let’s Stop Meeting Like This: Tools to Save Time and Get More Done. He urges leaders to rethink the purposes of meetings now and redesign them to work within the strengths and weaknesses of the available platforms.

Should that meeting be an email? 7 questions

“A good strategy for virtual work takes into consideration all of the channels of communication and leverages the right ones for the right purpose,” Bates says. “Use all the channels, and model this for your team as well.”

IT leaders and their team members can consult this checklist before sending out another next zoom invite for a task better accomplished via email (or chat or phone).

1. Can you articulate the purpose of the meeting?

If not, do not pass Go. Go directly back to work. It’s probably not even worth an email.

2. Is this a standing meeting?

Take a critical look at these meetings. As many as half of your standing meetings (e.g. the weekly staff update meeting), could be unnecessary, says Allen.

3. Is it a glorified status update?

Employees spend more time preparing for a status update call than they spend on the call.

Employees spend more time preparing for a status update call than they spend on the call, says Darleen DeRosa, Ph.D., consultant with Spencer Stuart and co-author of Virtual Team Success: A Practical Guide for Working and Leading from a Distance. What’s more, the majority of them multi-task during them. “If there is no expectation for interaction among team members to solve a problem or make a decision, you should consider using shared sites or email to get people the information they need,” DeRosa says.

4. Do you intend to inform, create a record, or handle detailed issues?

If so, email is your best bet, says Bates. Unless the meeting requires real-time interaction, collaboration, or co-creating, convert these meetings to another format.

“If the meeting that one is about to schedule does not require people coming together to discuss something and decide something, or a similar interactive process, more than likely an email, memo, or even a quick FYI text message is probably sufficient,” says Allen.

And if you just need a quick answer to a question, go to your real-time collaboration or chat tool. (If you don’t have one, get one.)

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

5. Is the meeting one-directional?

If the majority of the would-be convocation consists of one person to an audience with no intent to discuss or decide, turn to other technology. Consider recording the presentation and sending the link to colleagues.

“They will be able to listen to the presentation at their convenience, and then use that information in a subsequent meeting or in their work,” Allen says. “By doing so, you’ve given power back to the individual to absorb the information on their own time, enabling more control over their work schedule, which is known to relate to employee effectiveness and engagement.”

6. Are you lonely?

Simply in search of some human connection? Utilize the chat function in your collaboration software for informal updates or to shoot the breeze with your team. “You can set up a group room, then between meetings, you can have discussions between people online, impromptu one-on-ones as necessary,” says Watson.

“Meetings are not a substitute for informal office chats or a water cooler. Businesses need to introduce and train managers and employees on the use of collaboration workspaces where informal updates can occur 24/7, synchronously, and asynchronously.”

Avoid email in this case. “Email tends to cause a long series of reply-all messages and overloads everyone’s inbox,” Watson says.

7. Will this Zoom call change anything?

“If the answers to the questions ‘What do you want to create because this meeting takes place?’ or “What do you want to be different because this meeting takes place?’ do not energize you or the meeting participants,” says Axelrod, “you should not be meeting.” Period.

[ How can automation free up more staff time for innovation? Get the free eBook: Managing IT with Automation. ] 

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.