Last year, the world of work experienced a huge shift practically overnight as meeting attendees switched from rushing between conference rooms to rushing to find the right Zoom link. While the medium of meetings has shifted for many of us, our need to come together in groups to collaborate, discuss project progress, and tackle work challenges is unchanged and ever present.
In fact, the number of meetings per day has actually increased since many workplaces went completely remote in 2020. A recent “Future Workforce Pulse Report” by Upwork predicts that by 2025, 36.2 million Americans will be working remotely — almost a 90% increase from pre-pandemic levels. In short, virtual meetings aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.
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This virtual context adds layers of complexity for both meeting leaders and attendees. We aren’t used to the unnatural lack of nonverbal cues, prolonged eye contact, or overload of faces (including our own!) to process on the screen. Seeing our own faces as we talk or listen, and the associated hyperawareness of how we appear or emote, is stressful.
The amount of effort required to process all of these stimuli while simultaneously thinking and communicating is fatiguing. Recent recommendations for reducing “Zoom fatigue” have included avoiding multitasking, taking screen breaks, or switching to a phone call or email. While these strategies may be helpful for alleviating one’s own fatigue, they do not address the quality, content, or taxing nature of virtual meetings themselves.
What exactly makes virtual meetings so draining, and what can leaders do to improve their meetings? Over the summer of 2020, we collected data from 150 employees from a range of industries in the U.S. and Europe to learn about their experiences in virtual meetings and, more specifically, meeting fatigue.
The vast majority of those surveyed reported feeling fatigued and drained during and after their virtual meetings — more so than with in-person meetings. This came as no surprise. But there was much less consensus regarding their explanations for why they felt fatigued. Meeting schedules and structures emerged as major themes, but survey respondents varied widely in their preferences regarding both.
We encountered what we call preference paradoxes: Different people had different virtual meeting preferences, so some people’s preferences contradicted those of their colleagues. Some employees reported, for example, that virtual meetings are more fatiguing than those conducted in person because there are fewer social cues, whereas others appreciated the more detached meeting style. One person reported that they missed the easy social interactions of the office but did not want virtual meeting time bogged down by chitchat. What’s the best path forward given attendees’ varied preferences?
There’s no universal solution; virtual meeting preferences signal the need for a tailored response from leaders. Don’t assume that your preferences are the same as your team’s or that all teams share the same preferences. For more effective and less fatiguing meetings, one of the most important things a leader can do is ask for feedback from meeting attendees.
Collecting feedback on your meetings is a good practice for holding effective meetings in general. Not only will you collect important feedback to inform how you plan and lead future meetings, you’ll also communicate to employees that you want meetings to be a more positive experience for them. Start by facilitating conversations about what works and what doesn’t for the individuals or groups you meet with. By asking employees to think critically about their meetings and contribute to their success, you may spark more engagement and investment in your meetings as well.
Your feedback solicitation could take the form of occasional pulse surveys, more open group discussions, or both. The questions you ask in these conversations or surveys should capture people’s evaluations of current meetings and their preferences. You could also ask your team to make suggestions for future meetings.
To help guide this meeting feedback solicitation process, consider these potential questions:
- How helpful are our team meetings?
- What is working well and not so well? What should we do differently?
- To optimize your workflow, should our meetings be scheduled in the morning, midday, or afternoon?
- How long should our meetings be?
- How often should we meet?
- Would you benefit from days or time blocks with no meetings?
- If you were to lead the meeting, what would you do differently?
After collecting feedback from meeting attendees, absorb and reflect on it. Let their thoughts sink in, and do not get discouraged. Then experiment and change things up based on what you learn. It’s important, though, to recognize that you won’t always be able to accommodate everyone’s preferences. Mix it up: You may consider catering to some team members’ preferences one month and others’ the following month. This signals that you are trying to make accommodations that ultimately benefit the entire team in some way or another. You are listening and taking action to make meetings better for the group (even if this means accommodating only a few people at a time).
Although the unique ideas you glean from your team will guide your action plan, these best practices for making virtual meetings more effective and less fatiguing also deserve consideration:
- Cancel unnecessary meetings and make necessary meetings shorter.
- Assign different roles to attendees when it makes sense, such as facilitator, notetaker, or timekeeper.
- Use breakout rooms for problem-solving, discussions, and social interactions.
- Hold asynchronous meetings, such as by creating a shared Google Doc for employees to contribute to throughout the day.
- Build in breaks during long meetings and in between back-to-back meetings. Encourage employees to get up, stretch, and walk around.
- Implement meeting-free time blocks or days.
- Moderate and facilitate virtual meetings more actively, moving topics along when needed and ensuring that everyone has an opportunity to contribute.
- Turn off “self view,” if possible, on your meeting platform and make camera use optional for some meetings.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to reducing virtual meeting fatigue or to eliminating “bad” meetings. Be willing to adapt and grow. Experiment with different meeting strategies or platforms. Adjust as needs change or evolve. Rely on meeting best practices and develop a tailored response to make sure your next virtual meeting energizes rather than drains. While navigating a paradox of sometimes contradictory preferences, leaders can still make a difference. Find out what matters to your people and then deliver.