The Meeting Pandemic

2020-05-08 | BY Michelle Pencer | IN Free Resources, Work Life

The Meeting Pandemic

Something has been happening over the course of the past few weeks, and it has nothing to do with viral loads or vaccines or lockdowns. Amidst the rush of sequestering in our homes, the thrill of reclaiming our commute, and the fear of the future – we’ve seen our calendars slowly fill up with an uncomfortable number of meetings.

What used to be three or four meetings a day has turned into six or seven. Days that we’d once reserved for ‘deep work’ have now been converted into a round robin session with every person we report to and every person who reports to us. 

Famed organizational psychologist Adam Grant has coined the term “screenout” to describe our response to this skyrocket in meetings. Even he admits, faced with the unmanageable number of meetings, that he’s “started declining video calls, dialing in by audio when face-to-face doesn’t seem crucial, or – better yet – shifting to email.” 

It seems that the fear of becoming disconnected has prompted us to opt for something just as radical – we’ve moved to a point where connecting has, in some capacity, replaced working.

This is not a rant against meetings 

This is a rant against the tsunami of meetings that has come as a direct result of working from home. 

The post-COVID-19 world is one of endless check-ins, daily updates with this team or that team, virtual happy hours, leadership meetings, management meetings, one-on-one meetings, mind-boggling meetings, useless meetings. Meetings that last anywhere from thirty minutes to two hours and only on occasion have a set agenda. Last week I tried to book a meeting with one of our vendors and we couldn’t find a single time slot – our calendars were so disgustingly bloated. 

And what are these meetings all about? 

What we’re witnessing is a misunderstanding of how the office environment might be expressed in the isolation of our homes. We’ve tried, as best we can, to replicate the exact conditions of every interaction; if in the past we were used to walking to someone’s desk to discuss a question, we now book a face-to-face Zoom call. If we were used to seeing our peers or direct reports daily, we now feel the need to fill that void with an onslaught of Outlook requests. 

The desire to maintain connection is perfectly reasonable – necessary, even, for our mental health and company culture. Yet the overwhelming amount of meetings has left some people wondering when they are to complete the tasks that make up the majority of their job. The tasks upon which they will be judged, and ultimately upon which the career rests. Especially at a time like this, when even the most secure person is now uncomfortably close to unemployment, being recognized for good work is entirely critical. But how can you stay productive, when so much of your day is spent in meeting after meeting – the primary point of which is to…signal your productivity?

I’ve come up with two solutions, though there are certainly many more out there (if you know of any, send me an email – I have about fifty co-workers who would be interested):

1. Write more messages

I got this one from my husband, a Data Scientist who insists that the meeting of the future is a Slack or Microsoft Teams message. 

His theory is that written communications force you to put more thought into whatever you’re proposing, to edit and clarify, and to think deeply about what you say before hitting send. He’s not talking about the kind of quick note that you might shoot off between meetings; he’s talking about a long-form message that stands in for a meeting entirely. With everything in writing, it’s easier to keep people on the same page and to refer back to exactly what’s been said. 

Now as a writer I like this idea. Clearly I have no problem with long form writing. But I know from a very annoying level of experience that people don’t read long messages – which has led me to question his theory in its entirety. Could writing long messages in lieu of meetings actually work, when everyone is so distracted and distractible? Isn’t it better to just hop on a quick call and bang out an answer?

The answer I’ve landed on is maybe. It depends on how many people would be on this call, how easy the topic is to misunderstand, and what kind of team you’re working with. That being said, I think there is a place for increased messaging in the modern workplace – even if it requires a major cultural shift. And step one in that shift is to stop coddling employees who fail to read emails carefully. 

2. Use a scheduling app

Suddenly all those apps that seemed smart in a distant ‘yes that’s a good idea’ kind of way are making their way into our collective psyche. One of these apps is Clockwise, a schedule organizer that, when installed on the computers of each team member, syncs up their meetings and creates blocks of time for undisturbed ‘deep work.’ It will also carve out a thirty minute lunch hour and help group your meetings in a way that makes sense for your own working style – be that earlier or later in the day. 

With this app (or something similar) you’ll be able to clearly see a differentiation between your ‘meeting time’ and your ‘working time,’ and you’ll no longer need to sever your work time into a hundred 30-minute slivers that, combined, make for a very sad work day indeed. 

Connection has never been more important than it is now – but like everything, it comes at a price. Whether or not that price is reasonable, or whether it might be reduced, is the question. 

Take a look at your calendar: if it causes your anxiety to spike, it’s time to recalibrate. 

The transition period has come and gone. We no longer need to remain in such constant contact with every person we once saw daily. Think about the pleasure you’ll get from sitting down and completing a task, finishing that project, reviewing that document. One of the biggest benefits of working from home is the freedom from distractions – so let’s not bring the worst parts of the office home with us.


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