On average, we spend over 50% of our time in meetings, making the Zoom fatigue more real than ever. Lately, I hear the same complaint over and over in coaching sessions: “I have back-to-back calls with no time to collect my thoughts in-between. As a result, I work overtime to complete my tasks. I am overwhelmed and with no energy after work.”
Excessive meetings have become the exponent of a flawed culture, a corporate addiction leaving us with no mental space for strategic thinking, innovation and creativity. While meetings are key to a collaborative organizational culture, meeting overload is highly detrimental to both our business and mental health. More precisely:
- Meetings distract us from strategy; they provide us with a premature sense of achievement and prompt us to measure the wrong things – the number of calls per day! In contrast, strategic thinking can feel daunting and harder to quantify, especially since – at the end of the day – great ideas are always scarcer than the number of meetings!
- Meetings shorten our attention span; back-to-back meetings have the same effect on the human brain as mindless scrolling: we jump from one topic to the next in minutes, losing our ability to sustain focus over prolonged periods. This explains why even when we do have a no-meeting day, we find it so hard to focus on a task.
- Meetings impact our sense of connection; unfortunately, besides meetings, one must work as well: reply to an email; prepare a report; design a deck etc. Hence, there’s no secret that most employees multitask while attending calls. No wonder more and more people feel unheard, unseen and misunderstood. That’s because they really are!
- Meetings leave us exhausted and disengaged; spending more than 50% of our time in meetings (often scattered throughout the day) will not only make us more unproductive in the long run but leaves us with no energy for after-work activities. As employees feel less in control of their calendar, engagement drops and quiet quitting is on the rise.
- Meetings intensify conflict; a meeting has more potential to trigger negative emotions as compared to an email. The tone of voice, the mid-sentence interruptions, the coworker who repeatedly asks the same question, the rush to get to a conclusion before time runs out – these can fuel misunderstandings and ‘fight or flight’ reactions.
- Meetings provide a false sense of progress; no time to work on that report? Set a call to keep the ball rolling! More progress? No. Just more empathy – “we are all busy” in a culture where the “do not disturb” status is frowned upon, unproductive busyness is a badge of honor and problem-solving means just another invite.
Research concluded that removing 60% of meetings increased cooperation by 55% and productivity by 73%, considerably improving communication effectiveness, engagement and employee wellbeing. Hence, cutting back on meetings is a must. But so is understanding why there are so many meetings in the first place.
We tend to place responsibility on the employee: prioritize better, decline unimportant calls, book focus time. While self-leadership and personal boundaries are essential, it’s hard to break bad habits in a system designed to reinforce them. In addition, focusing on the individual alone is like trying to solve world hunger by cooking a bowl of pasta.
Most often, an excess of meetings is a symptom pointing to a deeper organizational issue that requires shared responsibility and leadership attention e.g., conflicting priorities, unclear roles, superfluous or missing processes, micromanagement, untrained staff in key roles, scaling too quickly etc. As Peter Drucker puts it, “meetings are by definition a concession to a deficient organization. For one either meets or one works”.
I often advise leaders to spend a whole day attending meetings at different levels in their organization. It will provide them with more insights than any KPIs report on the type of dysfunctions within their companies. After all, meetings are a micro-representation of the larger organizational culture, showing the power dynamics, the company’s ability to align, plan and execute strategy, and its ability to foster inclusion and engagement.
How many meetings do you have in your organization?