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Death by a thousand meetings: How to reduce video-call overload

Years into the pandemic, workers are still suffering from back-to-back video calls. Here’s how to rethink meetings.

A person is overwhelmed by meeting invites and email notifications.
(Elena Lacey/The Washington Post)
7 min

Pre-pandemic, white-collar workers felt meeting exhaustion. Then came Zoom fatigue. Now, they’re experiencing a bit of both, sometimes at the same time.

In this new stage of work, during which some people are back in the office, others are hybrid and some are permanently remote, many workers are being bombarded by an onslaught of meetings. And a lot of those meetings are now on video services like Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Google Meet. But back-to-back meetings often breed exhaustion, a feeling of decreased productivity and sometimes even dread, leaving many to wonder how to escape death by meeting.

“We’re in uncharted water,” said Steven Rogelberg, who teaches organizational science, management and psychology at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. “We just don’t know what the world of meetings looks like.”

The reliance on video meetings, which rapidly grew when workers were locked down during the pandemic, has continued despite many white-collar workers returning to the office. Microsoft recently reported that in the spring of 2022, the number of video-enabled Teams meetings per week more than doubled globally for the average user since the start of the pandemic. And there was no evidence of a reversal the following six months, the company said.

Some companies are taking drastic measures to respond to meeting overload. Shopify recently encouraged employees to decline meetings, implemented no-meeting Wednesdays and purged all meetings with more than three people, encouraging a temporary pause before anyone could add them back. And TechSmith, a Michigan-based tech firm, recently said it boosted productivity by piloting a month without meetings.

So how should workers think about their future video meetings? Can you push back on them? And if the boss is asking for these meetings, what can a worker do?

Here’s what you can do to make video meetings more effective, decrease fatigue and improve collaboration.

Have a question about tech at your workplace? Shoot us a note.

Do a meeting audit

The beginning of the year is a good time audit your meetings, work experts say.

Review all recurring meetings on your calendar. Consider which are necessary and effective, and make changes as needed, Rogelberg said. This is more effective than canceling all meetings or implementing arbitrary no-meeting times, he added. Those rules often lead to violations and an overwhelming number of meetings on the days they are allowed.

“It’s trying to be a quick fix … and doesn’t provide the promised relief,” he said. “But doing [a meeting audit] as a collective team is the best approach.”

But getting rid of all meetings may be a good start for an audit, said Leslie Perlow, a professor of leadership at Harvard Business School. That forces workers to consciously consider which to add back.

Understand the meeting’s purpose

Before scheduling a meeting, make sure you even need one.

Rogelberg boils this down to three questions: Is there a compelling purpose to bring people together? Does the content of the meeting require engagement and interaction? And is there no alternative communication method that would be just as effective? A meeting should only be scheduled if the answers to all three questions are yes.

Otherwise, consider writing an email, sending an instant message to the group or recording a podcast to convey information. An alternate form of collaboration includes using a shared document for cross time zone feedback or brainstorming.

Raffaella Sadun, a professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, said you also should be able to answer how the meeting contributes to the team’s objectives. Meetings also may increase accountability as participants make verbal commitments to tasks and deadlines in a group setting, she added.

“If a meeting does not involve these broader and specific objectives, it’s probably superfluous,” Sadun said.

Consider framing the meeting as a set of questions to understand what you’re trying to achieve, Rogelberg said. It may be easier to gauge a meeting’s success based on the questions answered. They will also help identify who to invite.

“I’ve always wanted to make managers have to pay for every person who has to be at the meeting so they’re forced to think about who should and shouldn’t be there,” Perlow said.

Reduce the requirements

Workers may find they are regularly invited to meetings that feel like a time suck. So can they just say no?

“Declining meetings sounds good in theory. But in practice, that’s a terrible position to put someone in,” Rogelberg said.

Instead, Rogelberg suggested that meeting hosts create a culture that is sensitive to participants’ time by allowing people to only attend the parts relevant to them.

Invitees may have less power as they wrestle with the potential repercussions of declining a meeting. Asking a trusted supervisor whether their attendance is necessary may be a way out, Rogelberg said.

It’s all in the delivery of the message, Sadun said.

“Learn how to say no, using evidence and explaining why that time is needed,” she said. “Be very mindful of how precious your time is.”

Shorten meeting times

Often times, meetings are just too long. Shortening them could give people time back, reduce fatigue and increase effectiveness.

Hosts often set a meeting for pre-filled time slots provided by calendar or video applications. Instead, hosts should think about how much time is really needed.

“Everything stretches to the [preset] time,” Perlow said. “If we have less time, hopefully that makes us more strategic.”

Perlow suggested adding breaks between meetings. Instead of scheduling an hour-long meeting, make it 45 minutes.

“Speedy meetings and huddles can be effective,” Rogelberg said. “It serves a great purpose without the tax.”

Decrease video stress

Years of back-to-back video meetings have revealed what makes the experience so exhausting.

But Jeremy Bailenson, the director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, said workers can reduce video-call fatigue with some small tweaks.

First, hide the self-view to refocus attention from yourself to the actual meeting. Research shows that when we see ourselves, we are naturally drawn to judge every move, appearance and gesture, which increases stress, Bailenson said.

He also suggested reducing the size of the video window to more accurately reflect the distance between you and other people. This helps reduce the fatigue associated with nonverbal cues.

“If you leave the default size, it forces an intimacy we don’t have in the real world,” he said.

Ensure your setup is comfortable by adjusting the lighting, seating, and placement of the keyboard or camera. To reduce pressure, consider meetings that require cameras to be off. This is especially helpful for parents and caregivers, Bailenson said.

“Does someone need to do an hour of grooming to be seen for 15 minutes?” he said. “Forcing people to be on camera may have downstream effects you haven’t thought of.”

Support in facilitation and participation

To aid with effectiveness, attendees can serve as model participants by helping facilitate the meeting or being effective listeners and talkers by keeping their points short and concise, Rogelberg said.

Sadun said attendees can also suggest an agenda and have clear follow-ups.

Brainstorm in silence

Ultimately, efficient meetings come down to execution and respect for people’s time.

Consider how much time people need to do deep thinking vs. interacting, Perlow suggested. Leverage the days people are physically together for meetings.

“It would be better if people were more intentional about when they met and what they did when they were together,” she said.

Research shows that brainstorming in silence yields more and better ideas, Rogelberg said, something meeting hosts should keep in mind. Setting up a shared document so people don’t have to work synchronously may allow everyone to work better together and come up with ideas.

“Be a part of the solution versus the problem,” Rogelberg said.

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