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Sick of virtual meetings? Here's what to do

Amantha Imber
·4-min read
How to avoid virtual meeting fatigue. Source: Getty
How to avoid virtual meeting fatigue. Source: Getty

Despite lockdown restrictions easing across Australia, many workers are still based at home. And for a lot of us, we have discovered that we actually like working from home for the majority of the time and have no desire to go back to the office five days a week.

If workers and teams remain distributed, with some working from home and some working from the office, virtual meetings will reign. Unfortunately, virtual meetings have a poor reputation – which is often rightly deserved. They can be tiring, ineffectively run, and are often a chance for us to take a sneaky check of our email or social media feeds when things get a bit dull.

Our negative relationship with virtual meetings is a serious problem. Research has consistently found that satisfaction with meetings predicts how satisfied we are with our jobs.

One study found that more than 15% of our job satisfaction is based on our satisfaction with meetings we attend. And other studies have found that meeting satisfaction is the single biggest predictor of job satisfaction - so it’s important that we use our time well in meetings. This is even more true of virtual meetings because of all the additional problems they can pose.

If the virtual meetings you are attending or running are sucking the life out of people, consider one of the following strategies to make virtual meetings more productive and less sleep-inducing.

Cap virtual meetings at 30 minutes (or at very least, take frequent breaks)

Research from Microsoft found that virtual meeting fatigue is indeed a real thing. Researchers from Microsoft’s Human Factors lab had participants wear an EEG device that monitored brain waves during virtual meetings. Perhaps not surprisingly, the researchers found that people’s concentration started to fade at around the 30- to 40-minute mark. When a person’s days were filled with meetings, stress levels began to rise after about two hours into their meeting-filled day.

The researchers suggested that focusing on a screen to extract relevant information can be exhausting and it can be hard to remain engaged. In addition, due to the limited non-verbal cues, it can be harder to get a read on people and know whose turn it is to talk. And finally, when sharing screens, the view of people become tiny and almost eliminate any visual cues you were previously about to get.

As such, cap virtual meetings at 30 minutes. If they have to go longer, take short, regular breaks to help people maintain focus and energy.

Ask better questions

What’s the first question that gets asked in most meetings? Aside from “Can you hear me?”, most meetings start with the question “How are you going?”. And how do people answer? “Good.” “Fine.” Boring questions elicit boring answers and fail to build stronger connections.

Challenging yourself to ask a more provocative or interesting question that will elicit a surprising answer or gain further insight into the person or people you are meeting with. For example, you might start a meeting by asking what people are most proud of this week, what their favourite room in their home is, or what an unexpected upside from COVID has been.

Asking better questions is one method to create a High-Quality Connection (HQC), a term coined by Professor Jane Dutton at the University of Michigan. HQCs are interactions you have with someone virtually or face-to-face, in which both people feel lit up and energised by the connection. The beauty of HQCs is that they don’t require significant time - they can be as short as a five-minute conversation.

Research shows that HQCs have a myriad of benefits, including helping us be more creative, resilient, and even live longer. Beyond helping us thrive individually, they also contribute to team and organisational effectiveness. When teams have HQCs, members are more creative, coordinated, and more likely to have mutual respect for one another.

Default to phone

In the world of remote work, people’s default meeting type has become video. To help overcome virtual meeting fatigue, experiment with having phone meetings as your default.

On his podcast WorkLife, Wharton Professor Adam Grant shared research that we are actually better at reading emotions and empathising with people over the phone compared to via video. The phone eliminates all the visual cues that can distract from us honing in on the actual human we are communicating with. In addition, phone calls allow us to be moving around and thus reduce the fatigue that can set in when we are desk-bound all day.

If you are suffering from virtual meeting fatigue, try one of these three strategies this week to help make your meetings a whole lot better.

Dr Amantha Imber is the founder of behavioural science consultancy Inventium and the host of How I Work, a podcast about the habits and rituals of the world’s most successful people.

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