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Our Meeting Obsession Is Hurting Our Work And Our Wellbeing

Over-indexing on collaborative time is taking a toll on employees' productivity and wellbeing. Here's how to fix common meeting mistakes in the remote era.

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I recently heard from a stressed out colleague, whose calendar was full, bouncing from appointment to meeting with barely any breaks for focused work.

"I don't get it," he said. "When I was working in the office, I didn't feel like I needed to be in every meeting. But now, when I'm working remotely, I feel like I can't miss a meeting."

He's far from the only one. The workforce scrambled to adjust to remote work these past two years. Surely, something needed to replace all the in-person time we were used to.

A survey from April found 69% of 1,000 remote workers said their meetings had ballooned since the pandemic. Even worse, the majority said it was hurting their job performance. Research quantifying the time suggests professionals are spending a whopping 308.8% more time in one-on-one meetings.

Simply put, our overreliance on meetings is getting in the way. Things are never going back to "normal," which means it's high time for leaders to recognize we're over-indexing on collaborative time at the expense of our employees' productivity and wellbeing.

But there's a better way. Here are three common meeting mistakes in the remote era and how to fix them.

Acknowledging the cost of context-shifting

Our productivity tools can be as much of a curse as they are a blessing. Unlike email and its predecessor, the memorandum, Slack and text messages carry the expectation of an immediate response. Those constant interruptions take a toll on focus – now it's time to recognize that most meetings are no different.

Cognitive psychologists have shown that it takes as much as 64-seconds to refocus after responding to a text. You can imagine the implications of an unnecessary video call. Being constantly interrupted doesn't feel good, either. Studies show workplace interruptions are a significant source of stress and decreased wellbeing for employees.

This problem has a name. Context-switching: the rapid jumping between unrelated tasks; and of course it has a name, because we do it all the time. Constant context-switching from meetings to email to IMs keeps us working in sub-optimal conditions. Attaining that coveted state of flow becomes near impossible.

But employers can help their workers avoid this problem. Start by encouraging a workplace culture where employees are empowered to block off time in their calendars. During especially busy times, my company imposes "quiet time." For example, we'll go two weeks where nobody is allowed to bother the development team – that means no meetings.

An alternate approach can be setting specific hours where you do allow meetings to be booked. Much like a university professor sets their office hours, we should all feel comfortable in setting the workplace boundaries we need.

Related: Ward Off Interruptions That Kill Team Dynamics

Ban the blanket invites

We've all experienced a "this could've been an email" meeting. But another problem is the realization "wait, why am I even in this meeting?"

Research has shown the ideal team number is four to six people. Anything larger than 10 members leads to performance and interpersonal issues. But workplace norms that over-value time and under-value output have created a fear that declining an invite will be perceived as a lack of commitment. And often, the fear of leaving someone out leads to over-inflated invite lists. It's important for leaders to be clear about which meetings are optional and to consider whether some people can be briefed after the fact.

Curating our meeting invitations more mindfully can also be an important step in building more inclusive workplaces. Some people who don't need to be there will monopolize the time, whereas those who everyone should hear from may not get the platform they deserve. Indeed, research shows that men speak more than women in meetings and women are more likely to be interrupted. To reduce the likelihood of this happening, keep meetings smaller.

One helpful step for organizations would be to track and examine their meeting data. Just by looking at the numbers, companies can tell which meetings eat up the most time, who gets invited, who gets left out and, ultimately, how much all the group-think costs.

Related: Not All Meetings Are Quality

Forcing collaboration on the wrong tasks

I'm not saying all meetings are bad. But for the most part, we aren't using them for where they really shine. As a rule of thumb, we need to recognize that meetings are best used for alignment, not for strategy.

Addressing operational problems in a meeting is quite difficult. These issues require a more phased approach: you do some research, assess alternatives, let that information percolate and only then are you able to really make an informed decision. When you try to solve these kinds of issues with a meeting, it's not likely you'll come to any concrete results.

There are a couple of things I find that can help hone the focus of a meeting. For starters, agendas are your friend. Too many meetings are objective-less. I also find it pays off to ask attendees to do their homework before coming to the meeting. Send out a backgrounder instead of having one person burn the hour by filling everyone else in.

Meetings can be a fantastic tool for creative brainstorming, or efficient collaboration that offers different perspectives. But they're best used for alignment. They're an important part of building healthy interpersonal relationships, and can help foster feelings of belonging.

In a remote work environment, this time together is particularly important for building the connection that is harder to come by when everyone's working from a different place. But if you're using meetings to look over people's shoulders, you've got a problem. If the past nearly two years have taught us anything, it's that radical flexibility can be a wonderful thing – in fact, our workplace productivity is reaching all-time highs. Yet now people are burning out from competing demands.

As leaders, if we want efficient companies, we need to let employees do their work, and use collaborative time for it's best application – reminding us why we do what we do, finding connections, and for the wealth of resources that different perspectives can provide.

Related: Improving Employee Collaboration in the Post-Pandemic Workplace

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