While many people are finding the rapid transition to remote work difficult to navigate, working away from the office can have some serious benefits: no commute, more family time, and fewer distractions from coworkers like chit-chat and an unrelenting meeting schedule.
At least, in theory.
Unfortunately for many office workers out there, companies have seemingly taken all their bad office habits and just moved them online. Working from home has not seemed to spare many from the plague of unnecessary meetings. In fact, it may be even worse now.
What’s a remote worker to do? Here’s how to fight back against overzealous Zoomers.
It’s Not Just You: Zoom Fatigue Is Real
“Zoom fatigue”—that tired feeling you get after a long video meeting—has become a feeling many office workers are intimately familiar with. For many of us, these meetings aren’t anything new; we’re used to being in lots of meetings throughout the day. But once these meetings became virtual, they seem to be far more mentally and emotionally taxing.
What gives? Experts say that it’s simply harder to process verbal information over a video call than in person, where we can benefit from non-verbal communication cues. It could also come from the fact that we feel pressured to more actively show our engagement.
“At first, I thought Zoom meetings were better than in-person meetings. I even thought they were an introvert’s dream!” says Sunshine Watson, donor database manager at Valleywise Health Foundation. “Then I noticed that I was exhausted afterward, and dread days that involve them.”
The nature of how we work is changing, but our habits are lagging behind. Remote work has to function differently—simply jumping into a virtual meeting room won’t provide the same benefits as an in-person huddle.
“Be Mindful of the Tradeoffs”
David Heinemeier Hansson’s company, Basecamp, takes the art of virtual communication seriously. The team is primarily dispersed, with a few employees located at the company’s headquarters in Chicago.
“You can’t not communicate,” says Heinemeier Hansson. “Not discussing the elephant in the room is communicating. Few things are as important to study, practice, and perfect as clear communication.”
In his eyes, what many companies get wrong about communicating with dispersed teams is the tendency to favor short form communication (emails, Slack messages) and meetings (virtual or otherwise). Rather, internal communication at Basecamp is based on long-form writing. Every day, employees write-up an answer to one simple question: “What did you work on today?” Besides reducing tedious back-and-forth, Heinemeier Hansson says this forces people to be more thoughtful and clear with their communication.
“This routine is about loose accountability and strong reflection,” he says. “Writing up what you did every day is a great way to think back about what you accomplished and how you spent your time.”
Less time wasted and fewer miscommunications—sounds ideal, no?
The challenge lies in changing habits and culture. Most companies aren’t accustomed to communicating this way, and many are finding the transition to a virtual workplace difficult. Rather than change their bad communication habits, unnecessary meetings have simply gone virtual.
“Five people in a Zoom for an hour isn’t a one hour meeting, it’s a five hour meeting (five people times one hour equals five hours),” says Heinemeier Hansson. “Be mindful of the tradeoffs.”
Make Meetings Count
There’s never been a better time to revamp your company’s communication habits—in fact, your survival may depend on it. Nikolaj Karpov, VP of infrastructure engineering at Convene, has a lot of experience running efficient teams. “Engineers don’t exactly love meetings,” he says. “If you spend too much time in meetings, your team will have less time for doing actual work.”
To limit the number of unnecessary virtual meetings, Karpov follows a few simple rules. For one, every meeting must have an agenda. This creates structure so that time will be used efficiently. And perhaps counterintuitively, scheduling focused daily meetings can actually cut down on wasteful ones.
“Every morning we sync with the team on three key topics,” he explains. “What did you do yesterday? What are you planning on working today? And what blockers (if any) do you have? The goal of this is not to ‘check homework’ but to make sure the team is aware of who is doing what.”
Limiting interruptions is helpful, but of course you still want to speak with your team members face-to-face (virtually) when it’s important. And when asynchronous communication starts to drag on too long, it may be time to talk things out over Zoom. “As soon as you see an email thread longer than 5-10 emails, in 95% of the cases you better schedule a meeting.”
Know When to Walk Away
When under intense pressure to ramp up production, Tesla founder Elon Musk sent out a now famous email empowering his employees with some productivity tips.
Three were about meetings—get rid of big ones, frequent ones, and leave as soon as you realize your presence is not needed.
– Excessive meetings are the blight of big companies and almost always get worse over time. Please get rid of all large meetings, unless you’re certain they are providing value to the whole audience, in which case keep them very short.
– Also get rid of frequent meetings, unless you are dealing with an extremely urgent matter. Meeting frequency should drop rapidly once the urgent matter is resolved.
– Walk out of a meeting or drop off a call as soon as it is obvious you aren’t adding value. It is not rude to leave, it is rude to make someone stay and waste their time.
Standing up and walking out on a meeting can feel a bit defiant in many corporate cultures. Meetings are such a deeply rooted aspect of office culture that these habits will be hard to break. But the more that employees feel empowered to say no and make efforts to protect their time (what the company is paying for), your company will be better for it.
The Perfect Time For Change
The coronavirus pandemic is forcing major changes for society, many of which will take time to adjust to. Change is always difficult, but can also be a catalyst for long-overdue improvements. If your team finds continuous Zoom meetings draining, see what can be replaced by long-form writing exercises in a collaborative document. Switch a few video calls to old fashioned phone calls. Empower the team to excuse themselves from calls in which they are not vital contributors. Remember—employees will feel empowered to make changes when their managers set the example.