It’s been almost six months since organizations across the globe were forced to pack up their offices and switch to remote work. With COVID-19 still raging on across the world, many companies have extended work-from-home plans until the end of 2020, or even indefinitely in some cases. Unsurprisingly, most of us have found a support system in various video conferencing tools. Be it keeping in touch with family and friends or collaborating with colleagues, virtual meetings have been a real lifesaver during this pandemic. However, as the novelty of relying on technology for almost all forms of communication slowly wears off, the world is waking up to a new phenomenon: virtual meeting fatigue.
Virtual meeting fatigue or burnout can be defined as the feeling of exhaustion and/or stress that arises from having to attend too many virtual meetings throughout the day. Although initially these meetings did help maintain some semblance of an office life, they quickly became overbearing and impacted everyone’s productivity rather than improved it. Be it brainstorming sessions, status update calls, virtual happy hours, or one-on-ones, employees across the globe suddenly found themselves caught in an exhausting cycle of endless meetings. However, one has to keep in mind that virtual meetings started out as a well-meaning exercise to make up for lost face time. They can definitely help a distributed workforce maintain contact with each other, and can simulate common social interactions that used to occur at the office. So, how can organizations maintain a balance between upholding company culture and preventing employee burnout?
The surge of virtual meetings
With the onset of the pandemic came remote work enforcements, and with remote work came virtual meetings. Meetings are an important part of our office life, not just for discussing work or exchanging knowledge, but also for building and maintaining rapport. Thus, given the array of conferencing tools we have at our disposal today, it seems like a no-brainer that organizations would use them to retain workplace camaraderie and facilitate collaboration. Without virtual meetings, what would have been a quick discussion in the office could easily become endless emails and/or messages between teams. Plus, it’s always better to see and hear your colleagues than to have them reduced to little icons in your chat box.
However, six months into the pandemic, everyone has had their fill of virtual meetings. Organizations soon realized that it’s difficult to fully replicate the feel of in-person meetings. No matter how well the meetings are planned, our brain keeps looking for the missing link: the human interaction. Tuning in to a human conversation allows us a level of engagement that is not achievable through a screen. Thus, in the absence of non-verbal cues, people feel like they need to make more emotional effort to appear engaged and gauge coworkers’ responses. This level of sustained concentration on a screen can be immensely taxing for our brains. The screen itself is another contributing factor; it’s a well-known fact that staring at the screen for prolonged periods of time interferes with the body’s circadian rhythm, which can lead to increased stress levels.
A recent report published by researchers from Harvard Business School and New York University’s Stern School of Business found that the average length of meetings has dropped 20 percent since the pandemic began. While that may seem like good news, the downside is that the number of meetings conducted has increased by 13 percent. So, while the meetings have gotten shorter, we’re having to attend more of them. Having one’s workday stacked up with meetings not only leads to mental exhaustion, but also significantly cuts down the time one has to do their work, thereby affecting productivity.
Securing the future of remote work
With experts predicting that this new workplace normal is likely to continue for the foreseeable future, it looks like virtual meetings are here to stay. The challenge is to find a middle ground between encouraging efficiency and reducing the negative effects of online meetings. The onus is on the leaders of organizations to address this burnout by reimagining remote work culture.
Here are four tips that leaders can implement to keep their teams engaged and productive.
1. Create water cooler moments: Initiate short check-in activities to recreate the informal catch up sessions that were lost when remote work began. This can also foster a sense of community in the team, and can prove beneficial in encouraging new hires to bond with the rest of the team.
2. Empathize: Take a moment to understand what your team members are experiencing and how they’re feeling right now. Check in with your team frequently, and make time to acknowledge their efforts.
3. Build consistency: Human beings are creatures of habit. Try to maintain the frequency, date, time, and format of your meetings as much as possible, and stick to that schedule. Knowing exactly when to expect the next meeting helps people plan their day better, thereby boosting productivity.
4. Get creative: You don’t need to always stick to the same old format of sit-down video calls. Experiment with different formats such as no camera meetings, or if you use video conferencing software that allows users to customize their backgrounds and use filters, you can try themed meetings to break the monotony.
The bottom line is that many organizations may not fully return to the office anytime soon. So, the sooner you can create a mutually beneficial culture designed to combat this increasing burnout, the better it will be. Virtual meeting fatigue is very real, and whether it’s by trying different formats of meetings or reducing the number of meetings you schedule, every organization needs to acknowledge and address this problem soon to avoid having an extremely exhausted workforce on its hands.