To beat Zoom fatigue, your workplace needs fewer meetings and more data

“With the current need to bridge the physical distance between teams,” writes Alex Circei, “managers are at risk of using excessive meetings to ease insecurities they have around communication.”
(Courtesy of Getty Images)

Opening your work calendar on a Monday morning often comes with a very real sense of dread. You stare and sigh at the colorful squares blocking off hours of your time throughout the day, and the awkward intervals in between the squares confirm that it’ll be a struggle to get any real work done. The most frustrating thing? Most of these meetings aren’t necessary. 

More than being expensive, useless meetings are a quick way to stunt team productivity. Across industries, research shows that it takes 25 minutes to return your concentration back to an original task after a significant interruption. Meetings also increase the likelihood of people committing errors during a task, because they miss or repeat important components. And in one survey, 65% of workers said that meetings keep them from completing their own work.

Complicating the issue is the fact that managers and employees don’t tend to operate on the same schedules. In engineering, for example, writers and developers typically plan their workloads in units of half a day, whereas managers work in hours—so there’s an inherent misalignment when it comes to meetings. 

With the current need to bridge the physical distance between teams, managers are at risk of using excessive meetings to ease insecurities they have around communication. Yet at the same time, meetings have become more cumbersome than ever, as millions of employees with caregiving responsibilities need flexible schedules throughout the day (and night).

Now that our heads have just about stopped spinning from the impact of the COVID pandemic, and we can ease into more permanent remote habits, we should seize this as a chance to cut the fat, stop managers from micromanaging, and empower employees to self-regulate. How? By relying less on meetings and more on data.

Data is unbiased, accurate, and insightful in a way that humans can’t be (especially after the fifth meeting of the day). It can help managers better understand how teams are working, how projects are progressing, and even how employees are feeling—boosting overall trust and work quality. For many companies, data is the deciding factor in finally getting rid of useless meetings. Here’s why it’s time to follow suit in your workplace:

Data-driven analytics offer greater insight

Meetings aren’t always an accurate or even truthful reflection of the work that’s being done. Employees can only provide a subjective measurement of their progress—and they typically under- or overestimate their performance. We’re only human. Different personality types can also send misleading messages: Someone who appears unengaged or uninterested may actually be one of your most productive employees.

Then there’s the risk of meetings being merely transactional, where team members autopilot their updates (and repeat the work that’s already being done by project management tools), or simply tell managers what they want to hear.

We’ve reached a level of technological progress in which data is the solution for any business—whether they’re a tech company or not. Data gives a more in-depth look at employees’ productivity, objectively telling you most of what you need to know about their progress, quality, and output. 

Analytics platforms such as ActivTrak, Timely, and ZeroedIn integrate with a wide range of teams’ project management tools, codebase, and more to document employee performance in real time, and to automate reporting rather than relying on information shared in meetings. Managers can turn to data around priority metrics (e.g., the number of completed tickets or projects finished within budget) to review team or individual productivity without interrupting employees’ workflow.

This data generates more immediate feedback, at any point in the day, without managers having to wait for catch-up meetings to know where everyone is at. It also ensures a level of consistency across remote teams because the data is more standardized and there is less chance of human error when reporting.

Streamlining communication

Imagine you had a clean slate to reinvent how you communicate within your company. Most managers would have similar desires: Interactions should always be fresh and engaging, succinct and minimalistic, and there must be time for people to have informal, friendly chats.

In other words, you want to streamline internal communication, which means condensing necessary information and delivering it exactly where it needs to be, no more, no less.

Reducing the number of meetings starts with being economical about the people you include in your processes. It’s fine to have trainees join meetings as they learn on the job, and for each of your brain trusts to be as diverse as possible. But keep in mind that Stanford professor Robert I. Sutton says meetings are more productive when only seven people (plus or minus two) are in attendance. Also be wary that daily stand-ups and one-to-ones can quickly become disruptive for everyone involved, especially if the narrative for these meetings isn’t based on data. 

Be disciplined with the meetings you keep. Send out a concise agenda in advance, stating the topics to be covered. Strip down the attendee list to the bare minimum. Limit people who aren’t presenting to two-minute responses. Appoint someone as the scribe to take notes or create an in-meeting document for people to collaborate on.

Outside of meetings, these practices can be applied to other areas of communication. If your company uses Slack, for example, the number of channels could be reduced, or time parameters could be introduced for when people can send messages. Why not replace some of your individual feedback sessions with online surveys, or one-minute self-recorded videos? This might even allow employees to express their sentiment more freely than they would in person. 

Building trust with coworkers

People want to feel that they have autonomy on the job, and excessive check-ins may give them the impression they’re under surveillance. But teams that are given more freedom will in turn be less dependent on their leadership, giving them space to develop their own creativity, resilience, and problem-solving skills.

The point here is that managers need to take a leap of faith. Ask yourself honestly: Where could you be less hands-on when it comes to deliverables? If you’re struggling to give certain employees more independence, why is that? It might be a red flag that something is wrong in your relationship with your staff, or that their work isn’t up to scratch.

Rather than fall back on meetings, see if this is actually a chance to give your employees more educational opportunities. Using performance data, you can easily identify who needs assistance in what areas and offer them corresponding training materials. With such data, employees don’t have to feel shy about asking for extra support, and managers can foster a closer informal relationship with the team.

Making time for employees’ well-being 

With 41% of American adults saying they’ve struggled with mental health due to COVID-19, managers need to take a more active role in employee well-being. Yet they can’t do so when spending a disproportionate amount of time in meetings. 

Streamlined communication helps in the first place by reducing anxiety or stress relating to too many meetings. Second, it gives managers the time to delve into data around employee performance and flag any signs that an employee is unwell, stacking up too many hours, or is struggling to maintain their productivity levels. In response, managers can put together a mindful action plan and determine when a personal check-in is needed. It also means they can arrive at a meeting with the full picture of the employee’s performance—where they’re strongest, where they’re lagging—which is a solid springboard to really connect with people.

Meetings have long been seen as a necessary evil at work. As teams go fully remote, it’s tempting to overcompensate for the distance with more meetings. But businesses that opt for data-driven analytics instead will be better prepared to deal with change and to optimize processes for the long term. Take this as an opportunity to disrupt your traditional way of doing things, and to enhance creativity, trust, and support among your workforce. 

Alex Circei is the CEO and cofounder of Waydev, an analytics platform that measures engineers’ performance.

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