Virtual meetings, screen and camera fatigue are realities of remote work. As I sat down to write today, I admittedly wanted to go for a walk or take a nap! A morning full of virtual meetings has left me feeling fatigued and sees me reaching for caffeine to solve this slump. I’m not alone. When meeting overload strikes, productivity and creativity take a hit too. (Gabriel et al., 2021). Add screen and camera fatigue on top, and you have a perfect recipe for lost focus. Why do we consider meetings so exhausting and unproductive? (Whillans, et al., 2021)
Meetings get a bad reputation. I posit it is not the meeting that’s the problem, it is the leader. Both virtual and in-person meetings can be productive, leave participants inspired, and create momentum. If your staff leaves a meeting with their shoulders drooping and heads sagging – look in the mirror, leader. You weren’t effective. What caused the meeting to go off the rails? You did. It’s time to get control and ask yourself a few questions.
Leaders need to start questioning their motives for scheduling meetings (Whillans, et al., 2021). Establishing team expectations for reading email, responding to chat messages, and other forms of communication can reduce the need for meetings whose purpose is to disseminate information that could be read. As a leader, you must coach and hold team members accountable to agreed-upon expectations, versus making everyone suffer by scheduling – that’s right – a meeting. And there’s where everything goes to hell in a handbag. Leaders often look to avoid a simple accountability conversation, and thus schedule a meeting.
Some leaders only feel team members are productive if they are in meetings or on camera (Whillans et al., 2021). Why? Research clearly shows an increase in meeting fatigue when cameras are consistently required (Stanford, 2021). Participants are distracted, more focused on their camera presence than the message. Creativity shuts down. This is especially stressful for newer employees and women who are judged more harshly for the “grooming gap”, a standard for their appearance (Gabriel et al., 2021). I know days when I have a client facing meeting requiring my camera to be on, I feel more tired and remember less of what took place during the meeting. Why would my team members be any different?
In my experience, a valuable block can quickly go from being productive and collaborative to a waste of time. Consider these three scenarios:
Scenario 1: The Off-Topic Meeting. We’ve all been to that meeting labeled with one title that covered nothing remotely close to the agenda if there was one. It may even start out promising, and end in mystery. No one really knows where it went off the tracks, but it definitely did. Not honoring what a meeting is for, and bringing the focus back to the main topic, leaves team members frustrated, confused, and unfocused. These meetings deflate the balloon of momentum, causing employees to question their direction and spin in circles of confusion.
Tips: Keep your meeting derailers on the straight and narrow. Offer a parking lot for future topics, compliment a great idea, and write it down in a ‘future idea’ shared workspace. Simply thank them for their contribution and redirect the conversation back to the topic.
Scenario 2: Attendee with an agenda. Meetings are times to come together and collaborate, share ideas, solve problems, and invigorate team members. Leading a collaborative meeting is an art, not a science. Creating a safe space for collaboration and idea sharing means developing a team that is willing to walk into a virtual or physical space, sans ego. It feels terrible to sit in a meeting with a peer who is using their floor time to belittle or self-promote, while other team members sit silently, eyes rolling. There’s an obvious difference between self-promotion and camaraderie. As a leader, recognizing team members who are using the meeting to promote themselves or a personal agenda and correcting their behavior can improve the health of your team. Other team members will recognize this behavior is harmful to team collaboration and wonder why you don’t. Everyone should be a shining star, and no one brighter than the other.
Tips: Pull the attendee aside and discuss what you’ve observed. Yes, coach them, and share your expectations for collaboration. Publicly compliment and praise team members who participate in a supportive way, ensuring they feel encouraged.
Scenario 3: The ass-kicking meeting, for one person, and we all must attend. These are the worst kind of meetings. If you are a conflict avoidant leader or are uncomfortable setting expectations and holding your team members to this standard, you are torturing your staff. Truly, consider becoming an individual contributor. Too many leaders actively avoid confrontation by hiding behind a meeting. These are wolves in sheep’s clothing meetings. One person isn’t doing what’s expected, so the leader pulls the whole team together to ‘gain consensus’ and move forward together. Well – not so much. This is the least effective type of meeting. One or two people can effectively hide amongst their peers who are wondering what why this needed to be a meeting. This is one of the fastest ways to create disengagement on your team. (Whillans et al., 2021)
Tips: Put on your grown-up pants and have the conversation one on one. Look to understand why your team member is pushing back and be clear about your expectations and why they will remain in place. Listen to learn. This difficult team member is highlighting an opportunity for you to grow and look at a situation differently. It is possible you could be wrong.
At the end of the day, it’s not about the meeting. It’s about the person leading the meeting. Even informational meetings can be productive if they are held to a time and an agenda. Solicit anonymous feedback on your meeting leadership and meetings at your organization in general. Use this information to make changes toward reducing meeting time and improving meeting effectiveness. Lastly, stop blaming meetings. Start looking in the mirror to see how you can improve your leadership.