Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, virtual meetings via Teams or Zoom were not common. As a professor and before that a practitioner, I attended a handful of meetings each month, and rarely more than one a day. Most of my time was consumed with the tasks I needed to accomplish such as mentoring employees/students, teaching classes, and writing papers/reports. This is what professional life was like for most of us. Recently, I’ve been comparing notes with friends and there is a consistent theme. Everyone is buried in virtual meetings, often having entire days blocked with nothing but meetings. After 8 hours of daily meetings, there is no time to get actual work done. It occurs to me that all these virtual meetings are killing productivity.
Life in the Pre-Digital Age
As a young professional, I lived in the pre-digital age. If you wanted to contact someone, you wrote them a physical letter. If it was really important you made a phone call to the office, and if they weren’t there, the secretary would leave a message, written on a pink-colored note that went in their department mailbox. Each day I would receive a handful of letters and a phone message or two. When I went on vacation, I would come back to a few dozen pieces of mail. While I was away, no one could reach me. They had to wait for me to return to the office, which meant I experienced total detachment.
Some things were more difficult to do. If I needed to look up a journal article, I had to go to the campus library and find the journal in the stacks. I could read it there or make a copy. Turn around for correspondence was measured in weeks rather than minutes. My first international collaboration was with a colleague in Singapore and we corresponded on two-week cycles, which meant our project took a long time. Email and other digital tools made communication and other tasks much quicker, and should have increased productivity, and to some extent it has, but in many ways it has reduced it.
Digital Tools Are a Two-Edged Sword
Don’t get me wrong. The Type A in me loves being able to instantly communicate. I send an email or text and often receive a response in moments. But this instant connectivity comes at a cost. Not only can I easily send communications, others can send them to me whether I want them or not. The volume of email I receive is more than 10 times the volume I used to get of physical mail. To send a letter took more than pushing a button. You had to print it, put it in an envelope and mail it. Postage stamps cost money. So sending a letter was not frivolous. Email today is free and easy to send, so people send more of it–a lot more of it.
Virtual Meetings Are Killing Productivity
Email volume has us spending more time with correspondence today than in the past, but you have control over when you deal with it. Many professionals turn off email notice on their phones and dedicate certain times of day to check it, such as beginning and/or end of the work day. Much of it is junk that can be deleted without opening. I would say that the impact on productivity was probably a wash. It makes communication more efficient (the gain) although at the cost of greater volume of email received (the loss). Virtual meetings, however, are a different thing entirely.
Prior to COVID-19, the vast majority of meetings were face-to-face. That involved getting everyone together in the same physical space. If people were not in the same town, it meant travel. Someone had to find a room and reserve it. The greater cost of having a meeting discouraged having too many of them. When COVID-19 hit and we switched to virtual meetings, we discovered how easy it was to meet. It was so cheap and easy that we now frivolously schedule meetings almost on a whim. No matter how trivial the issue, we can get a bunch of people together to meet just by entering emails and pushing a button. So we spend a huge proportion of our working time meeting to talk about work, but we are left with little time to actually do the work.
We Need to Re-evaluate the Value of Meetings
Virtual meetings are a valuable tool that can be used to boost productivity, but they are too much of a good thing. It is time for organizations to start setting boundaries on number of meetings, and provide guidance to managers and others about their efficient use. Steps include
- Avoid scheduling recurring meetings that encourage meeting for the sake of meeting. There are some groups that need to meet periodically (e.g., weekly or monthly), but that should be the exception.
- Develop guidelines for deciding when to meet.
- Include agendas for all meetings. If there are no agenda items, there is no meeting.
- Meetings should have clear objectives for what is to be accomplished. If there is nothing specific to accomplish, you shouldn’t meet.
- Use asynchronous channels in place of meetings. There are many digital collaboration tools that can be used for this purpose. For example, asynchronous tools are helpful for brainstorming where people can post ideas and comment on one another’s posts.
Meetings are expensive in staff time, and they distract people from getting their tasks done. Appropriate use of meetings can be a boost to productivity. Unfortunately, the current trend has expanded how often we meet where we are to the point that virtual meetings are killing productivity.
Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels
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