Question Your Scheduling Norms: How the Pandemic Changed Company Meetings

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In addition to all the other challenges it has created, this pandemic has made it much harder to manage our time. People are juggling working from home and managing their families and personal responsibilities in the middle of a crisis. Distractions have practically quadrupled from what they were in the pre-pandemic days.

On top of that, the way people meet has been drastically altered. In-person meetings, long regarded as an essential component of building and strengthening coworker relationships, are no longer an option. I wasn’t surprised to see, then, that Doodle’s “State of Meetings Report Q2 2020” recorded a 109 percent increase in the number of virtual meetings during Q2 of 2020, the height of the pandemic.

Virtual one-on-one meetings have also spiked, according to our research, seeing a 136 percent increase during Q2. Again, that’s no surprise. The coronavirus pandemic has also caused a great deal of panic and stress among employees. Some worry they’ll lose their jobs due to the economic hardships their employers face, while others are struggling to adapt to working from home indefinitely. As a result, frequent check-ins with staff members are more vital than ever. What may have been a biweekly chat before COVID-19 may now be a twice-weekly 30-minute conversation.

Research also shows that remote workers are more likely to feel alienated or disconnected compared to onsite employees. We encountered this when we surveyed remote workers in the US: 68 percent of employees said a full week of virtual-only meetings left them feeling exhausted or stressed.

Making Our Meetings More Productive in the Era of COVID-19

Countering employees’ negative feelings around remote work and virtual meetings is certainly not easy. It’s vital that organizations make it a priority to keep in regular contact with remote workers, but it’s also true that more frequent check-ins can have unintended negative side effects.

I’m talking about meeting overload, or “Zoom fatigue,” as many are calling it. Being mentally focused and sitting in on 25+ virtual meetings in a single week, with the video on every single time, can be draining. Now, consider the fact that many employees are doing this while simultaneously taking care of their children at home. That just adds to their stress and exhaustion.

Cutting unnecessary meetings will be tremendously beneficial in fighting meeting fatigue. Rather than inviting everyone to every meeting, it’s okay to be selective. If you’re the organizer, only invite people who will directly contribute and make an impact. If you’ve been invited to a meeting and you don’t feel you are essential to the discussion, then politely decline the invitation and let the organizer know why. By declining invitations to unnecessary meetings, you can actually help those meetings be more focused and drive better outcomes.

Question Your Scheduling Norms

Another factor that can affect the productivity of meetings is length. Historically, people have chosen one hour as their default meeting duration for a few reasons. They may not want to rush participants through the meeting. If a meeting is larger in size and includes both internal and external stakeholders, an hour-long duration can give everyone involved ample time and opportunity to contribute their ideas and give feedback. And then there’s the simpler reason: Organizers want to safeguard against the meeting running too long and cutting into other meetings.

These are all valid reasons for choosing the standard hour-long slot, but our “State of Meetings” report indicates that shorter is, in fact, better. The most popular meeting duration in Q2 2020 was 30 minutes (36 percent), followed by 15 minutes (31 percent). One-hour meetings, on the other hand, have fallen out of favor, coming in third place.

This suggests that employees aren’t blindly following traditional scheduling practices. Rather, they are questioning scheduling norms and readjusting their approaches, all for the sake of taking back control of their time, bringing greater efficiencies to their work lives, and making more of an impact within the business.

Now, I can’t talk about meeting frustrations without talking about the importance of taking ownership and holding yourself, as a meeting organizer, accountable for the success of your meetings. Do the prep work and make sure participants have been briefed on the overall goals, key discussion points, and expectations. Include an agenda with key topics in the calendar invitation. This will provide structure to the meeting and prevent the meeting from going off track.

Another way to banish unproductive meetings and stay mentally sane is to make better use of time during meetings. If critical information (background, team perspectives, data, materials) is needed ahead of a meeting, then ask those questions before the meeting takes place. If you don’t get those responses before the meeting, chances are the meeting will end up being a waste of everyone’s time. No one wants that. If you can include those critical pre-meeting questions in the meeting invite itself, that’s one subtle way to encourage more productive meetings with minimal effort.

Renato Profico is CEO of Doodle.

By Renato Profico