This Meeting Could Have Been An Email: 3 Strategies To Avoid Zoom Fatigue

Prior to the pandemic sweeping the world, meeting fatigue was bad enough. Some days running room to room if you weren’t lucky enough to have them booked in the same room. There’s no room to digest what you just met on, or collect and send notes and action items, let alone take actions assigned to you. God forbid you need to use the restroom. Even if you collectively have a few hours across the day to work, the continual context switching makes productivity during office hours nigh impossible.

Enter pandemic, working from home for all, and video conferencing has gone from the occasional need for co-located businesses to all day every day. If you feel crazy that Zoom feels so much more difficult even if you’ve used it before, and with an endless number of tools to support collaboration at a distance, you aren’t wrong and you aren’t alone.

According to Gianpiero Petriglieri, an associate professor at Insead, “Our minds are together when our bodies feel we’re not. That dissonance, which causes people to have conflicting feelings, is exhausting. You cannot relax into the conversation naturally.” explored the issue noting also the stress that comes with not knowing what technical issues will arise or if interruptions will occur. Without the whole body language present of your peers, it’s even more difficult to read reactions.

Almost a full year into this and no timeline for an end in sight, let’s explore three types of strategies that can be deployed in tandem to reduce the impact on your team, and ultimately on yourself, in order to power through.

Avoid Meetings

I heard you like meetings. So I booked a meeting during our meeting so we could meet while we're meeting.

I previously touched on the subject last June with useful tips to reduce the number of meetings you have and the impact they have on your team including blocking work time for yourself and having designated no meeting times. Several months later, we are weary. We need to deploy additional tactics.

As a project manager we are often quick to get people together to force issues forward. Meetings when used properly are a catalyst to make people in a room look at each other and talk through things to come to decisions and align on the same page.

And that’s all well and good, but we are working in the time of Covid. Time is truly a commodity.

Be Ruthless With You Calendar

Calendar Chicken
A playing chicken

Don’t turn down every invite or stress yourself trying to figure out how to get to every meeting. Double booked? Triple? No stress! Meetings change around so often you can frequently just wait for people to move it for any number of reasons.

And if your bluff gets called? Even better! If you’re unable to delegate, you have the out to let the meeting with less importance know to carry on and send you the notes to follow up (especially if it’s a recurring meeting or a status only meeting). Plus, you have a reason to move along the one you attend so that you can make both. Even better is when you finish early and the second meeting is also over and you’ve just secured 15 minutes to yourself!

Additionally, recurring meetings and status updates can be evaluated on a case by case basis. Day to day and week to week, there may just not be much to report. Make use of collaborative tools like polling in Slack to get feedback from the team and cancel whenever possible. You might even find several have outlived their need and they can be cancelled altogher.

Just Say No
Maxine Waters is an American treasure

Turns out you can actually say no.

Politely of course and with reasons, but don’t just blindly hit accept of you have the space. Ask the following triage questions:

  • Is there an agenda?
  • Is there an actionable objective?
  • Can it be done in 30 minutes or less?

If not, push back and decline, or mark yourself as a maybe.

Don’t Be That Person

Sometimes meetings are inescapable. But make sure you’re looking at the meetings you book with the same scrutiny as those popping up in your inbox. You haven’t gotten traction on an action item, a decision, or information? What possible alternatives do you have possible if you had zero access to the people on the attendee list? Some tactics may be a little more passive aggressive than others so deploy with discretion but these are some ideas:

  • Trying to get estimates to build a schedule and forecast? You don’t need a meeting for that! Fill it in yourself and then send to the team to correct your assumptions and fill in gaps.
  • Waiting for a decision to be made and simply just need the thumbs up? Draft an email for the decision maker and CC all parties who need to be informed. Lay out the problem, your proposed decision and ask for feedback by a deadline, else it will be taken as tacit approval. (Use this judiciously as it can be seen as a power move, albeit an effect one.)
  • Use collaboration tools for non-requirements based work. Kanban boards and to do lists with updates serve as your status updates.
  • Consider dedicated times to work in Google Docs files or on Miro boards without logging into a Zoom call so you are available to discuss in chat but not distracting from your work.

Before you book, consider the total cost of the meeting and the value it will bring to the project.

Meeting Time (Hours) x Number of Attendees x Average Salary ($/hour) = Minimum Cost of Meeting

Harvard Business Review has a handy calculator to plug in and see the impact your meetings have on the long term ability of a project to deliver. Consider how many meetings you really need to have, how many need to be invited, and how long they need to be in order for the project to run effectively.

Schedule Efficiently

You’ve failed your dodge roll and find yourself to having to schedule a meeting. These are time-honored meeting best practices that even yours truly lets slipped when pressed constantly to move onto the next fire. When these strategies are applied consistently though, you can really make an impact in reducing everyone’s load.

  • State the outcome desired from meeting in the invitation.
  • Actually attach an agenda.
  • If there’s information to review, attach or share it.
  • Make sure there’s a meeting link, that it doesn’t require the host to start, and that you’ve unlocked screen sharing and recording to any attendee.
  • Bunch meetings together when possible to give people the longest stretches of uninterrupted work possible unless otherwise requested.
  • Schedule meetings to start at xx:05 or xx:35 and to be for 20 or 5 minutes to allow for context switches and bio breaks.
  • Don’t schedule recurring meetings on Mondays or Fridays as they are the most likely to get bumped.
  • Keep the attendees to 5 or less whenever possible. Team size is a large contributor to the effectiveness of your meetings.
  • If you schedule a meeting after 4pm on a Friday or before 10am on a Monday, you are a monster.

Be A Facilitation Ninja

Do you know what the best six words are at the end of a meeting?

“I’m giving you back x minutes.”

How do you get there?!?!

  • Before my day starts, I use the plugins between my Calendar and OneNote to make pages for each of my meetings with the attendees as check boxes. It brings over the description for the meeting so I have my objective and agenda ready to go along with any attachments.
  • When the meeting starts I take attendance as people pop on and start promptly by stating the what I want to get out of the meeting, mention the agenda and dive right in.
  • Tangents can be useful, but a time sink. There’s not a hard and fast rule but I generally don’t let it go more than two minutes before asking folks to pause and determining next steps (a different meeting, an offline conversation, etc) and assigning someone to follow up on it.
  • Rapid clip time keeping. I remind the team as we go how much time we have left and content to get through remaining.
  • Ask along the way what are the action items and either note them or record the session (with consent) to update and sent out after the fact in the minutes.
  • If you are in the last 10 minutes and have not reached your objective, pause the discussion and refocus. It can seem abrupt at first but generally speaking, attendees will appreciate the efficiency and adapt to the style.
  • If you are working in JIRA or a similar tool, have that open to work directly through.
  • If someone has a lot of questions that don’t apply to the team as a whole, I indicate that we can tag up after we conclude.
  • If people aren’t reasonably prepared to discuss, reschedule.
  • There’s always going to be that person with analysis paralysis. Do what you can ahead of the call to get them up to speed, present options where possible to limit discussion, and consider disbanding the call if time is needed to further consider the choices. Most people don’t want to be held hostage while deliberation is going on.

A LOT of us are on the struggle bus at this point. We are tired. Extend grace where you can. Be selfish when needed. Just remember most of us are probably wearing pajama pants coping only through lots of caffeine.

Drink water. Remember to get up and stretch. And for the love of God, respect people’s out of office hours.

Crystal Larsh is a strategic leader, fierce DEI advocate, and delivery professional leading global teams out of Austin, TX. She has been working in the project and product space since 2001 and has focused on organizational design and operational improvements over the last several years. She has earned an MBA in eCommerce, a Masters in Project Management, a number of certifications (NPDP, PMP, CSM), and actively pursues opportunities for growth (DEI Blueprint, SAFe SPC training, and more). She uses her education and over 20 years of experience to help bring up the next generation, particularly women in tech.

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