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How to Recover from Meeting Hangover – And Get Back to Work

Before having the next one, ask yourself: "Do I really need another meeting?"

By Gustavo Razzetti

May 24, 2022

The pandemic dramatically increased meeting dependency – here's how to avoid the side effects

Meetings are addictive. Frantically racing from one session to another, suffering from Zoom fatigue, being overwhelmed by meetings, feeling that you've lost control of your time, or suffering from burnout are common signs of meetings hangover. We feel overwhelmed by meetings yet can't get rid of them.

The pandemic had an amazing effect on the workplace, magnifying the already unhealthy habit of back-to-back meetings. Research shows that most employees have clocked in an extra 2.5 hours since COVID, while meetings have increased by 69.7% since February 2020 – professionals average 5.1 meetings per day.

Meeting dependency is harming our mental health and productivity. A broken workplace culture makes this addiction even worse. To take a break or cut back on meeting consumption, your team needs to tackle the whole system, not just the hangover symptoms.

Reducing Meeting Hangover Requires Discipline

People are burning out and complaining that they have too many meetings. However, when I ask why they don't say "no," the answer is always the same: "I can't." They don't want to be left outside. Yes, meetings are mandatory (more on that later); however, the need to show up is often driven by fear more than a mandate.

FOMO – the fear of missing out – is pervasive at work. People want to be there and be seen. On the one hand, managers use visibility and presenteeism as signs that people are working – instead of focusing on the outcome, they associate busyness with productivity. On the other hand, meetings play a social role – not being invited equals not being important.

Every company has a meeting culture that shapes its behavior. For example, in power-driven cultures, not being invited to a meeting means you're not important or don't have visibility. In people-driven cultures, it means losing valuable moments to socialize and belong. In inefficient cultures, meetings are often the first resource – when people need to address something or access information, they just schedule a meeting.

What's driving FOMO in your organization?

When helping clients improve their meeting culture, we focus on the multi-layered, complex issues behind meeting addiction. Powerplays could drive FOMO, which is also the result of a lack of discipline. Meetings end up being the way all the collaboration problems are displayed. A lack of proper documentation, effective communication, and understanding of how to work asynchronously often generate more unnecessary meetings.

A lack of trust and the need to control employees also increased the number of visibility meetings. Often managers want to get together with their team to feel in control or check that the team is working.

Traditionally, collaboration has been understood as something that needs to happen synchronously, with everyone reviewing information, making decisions, or brainstorming together.

Most importantly, many companies fail to adapt to the reality of remote/hybrid work, continuing to operate synchronously. They believe that collaboration can only happen in real time. Thus, meetings are the default solution to get work done in a team. Lastly, documentation is not an art that many companies master. When information isn't well documented, people need to meet to find out what happened or access basic information.

Gumroad CEO Sahil Lavingia shared an extensive Twitter thread on the benefits his organization has derived from async communication—there's no drama. As communication becomes more thoughtful and less urgent, people are more mindful of how they process information and react.

"Overall, it's a very low-stress environment," Lavingia reflected. "This is possible because everything is documented. And because everyone talks through different text-based mediums, it's easy for people to peek into anything if they're curious. There are also no meetings, so there's no FOMO."

As a leader, you must tackle the root cause, not just the hangover. Why do people need to be in so many meetings? Why can't they stop having one after the other?

Here's how to get you started – hint: it requires discipline, not shortcuts.

Abstinence: Limit your meeting consumption

"First, the man takes a drink, then the drink takes a drink, and then the drink takes the man." – Chinese Proverb

Even if the goal is to cut down, meeting abstinence can assist you with lowering consumption and moderating meeting addiction – and you could use the break.

Establish abstinence days. Asana has been having no-meeting Wednesdays (NMW) since long before the pandemic with excellent results. This approach could quickly become a band-aid if it's not respected from the top. It's a crucial first step in the path to recovery.

Another option is to establish a ratio of work and meeting time. People should track their total amount of meetings per week – once they reach a cap, they should reject new requests.

At Hugo, there's a rule that team members can spend no more than ten percent of their working week in internal meetings. Sound crazy? Ask employees and they'll tell you the 4-hour meeting week rule is their secret sauce to productivity. As Hugo's CEO wrote, "The 4-hour meeting week has transformed our culture by redefining the meaning of meetings. That is, a meeting is the place for idea generation, discussion, debate, and decision-making. It's where insight gets turned into action. It's not the place to share information and updates."

Make meetings a last resort

Eliminating unnecessary meetings is the best way to prevent the side effects of Zoom hangover.

Removing unnecessary meetings needs to be done with a purpose. List and review all existing meetings. Which can be eliminated? Which meetings create little to no interest among the team? Are there any tasks that can be replaced by asynchronous collaboration or better documentation?

Cut unnecessary meetings away. Fewer means more time to actually do things. Like removing a dead branch, it will help redirect the energy to places that are worth it.

All status meetings should become asynchronous. As Jordan Husney told me, "Eliminating information-sharing meetings off everybody's calendar can save a team several hours a week. Just think about how each person having more focus time would positively impact team performance."

Next time you're planning a face-to-face event, a Zoom call, or synchronous brainstorming on Slack, think twice. Does it need to be a meeting? Explore all possibilities before hitting send on that calendar invite.

Reduce the length (and size) of meetings

Focus and productivity go hand in hand. Reducing your meetings – both shortening the length and the number of attendees – will create immediate results.

Successful collaboration requires increased participation. However, productivity has a tipping point beyond which the outcome suffers.

Hour-long meetings are a thing of the past (or should be, anyway). Depending on the topic, most meetings should last 15 or 25 minutes. The five-minute fraction allows breathing time between meetings.

Being more focused and assigning prework will help shorten existing meetings and save time and distractions. Anything that requires more than 50 minutes should be treated as a workshop, not a meeting.

Bob Sutton, organizational psychologist and professor of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford University, says big teams suck. On the other hand, smaller groups build a sense of intimacy and safety that opens up participation. Sutton believes that seven (plus or minus two) is the ideal team size.

Amazon follows the two-pizza rule to limit the number of attendees: don't invite more people than you can feed with two pizzas. Keeping meetings small improves collaboration and results.

Make participation optional

If people don't want (or can't) be in a meeting, it's better if they don't attend. Not only will they not be wasting their time but they won't distract those who actually want to be there either.

Making participation optional is easier than you think – I successfully implemented it with many of our clients. The benefits are countless. We know that scarcity makes things more attractive: giving people the option to opt out means they need to opt in if they want to join.

Who wants to attend a party where you're forced to show up? Companies should ax all mandatory meetings, and instead allow people to decide for themselves if they will attend.

Make it okay for people to invoke the "law of two clicks," inspired by the Law of Two Feet, which states that anytime you find yourself in any situation where you are neither learning nor contributing, you should use your two feet to move to someplace more productive. If employees feel they are not contributing or learning during a meeting, they can choose to leave the Zoom call (the first click), and confirm their decision (the second click) so that they can put their time and effort into something more productive.

Default to asynchronous collaboration

Most collaboration doesn't need to happen in real-time. Team members can develop new ideas, make decisions, exchange information at their own rhythm, and still collaborate.

Synchronous and asynchronous modes aren't opposites; they're more like two sides of the same coin. They need to be integrated and considered as parts of a whole.

Discuss with your team the benefits of asynchronous and synchronous communication – and when to use each. The following chart is a good starting point.

©Gustavo Razzetti – Benefits of asynchronous and synchronous communication

Mastering asynchronous collaboration increases efficiency and decreases burnout. Even collocated teams can benefit from it – just because people share space doesn't mean they should be constantly interrupted.

Defaulting to asynchronous makes collaboration more inclusive for people across different time zones and provides a safe space for people who need to think to talk. Most importantly, it allows people to be in control of their schedules and not the other way around.

Provide different options to engage. Make sure people are not excluded from live company events. Slack records its all-hands meetings for people to watch when it's convenient given their time zone and when they have time to digest the presentation properly. Employees can then (asynchronously) ask questions using the Ask Me Anything channel.

Default to async should be the goal, but that doesn't mean getting rid of all synchronous forms of communication.

Stop rewarding multitasking

"Everyone does it" is a lame excuse. Just because multi-tasking is normal doesn't mean it's effective. Extensive research shows that the benefits of multitasking are a myth. Not only is the perceived increased productivity not real, but it actually harms collective productivity. According to David Meyer, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, trying to split your attention between tasks that require effort and concentration means one or both of them will suffer.

When meeting participants are not really there, they become a distraction for the rest. From having to repeat what the team was discussing to scheduling a new meeting because someone wasn't paying attention during the original one – when colleagues aren't present, they drag everyone down.

You cannot force people to stop multitasking. But you can stop rewarding it as something which is okay to do and avoid modeling it by multitasking yourself.

Attention and focus precede quality outcome – encourage your team to focus on one thing and do it right.

Design meetings for participation

Start with a clear vision of what a successful outcome looks like. Go beyond having an agenda. Design for participation and begin with the end in mind.

Have people prepare for the meeting. Prework is a critical step in maximizing live interactions. Define clear roles and let participants know what's expected of them. Consider the mindset: do you want attendees to focus or flare? You don't need a judgmental mindset during a brainstorming session, nor do you want people coming up with more creative ideas when it's time to make a decision.

The no interruptions rule, turn-taking, breaking teams into smaller groups, check-in and closing rounds, among others are quick hacks to ensure equal participation. Assign a facilitator to keep the team on track and, most importantly, to level the playing field – crucial in a hybrid work setting.

Microsoft usually selects a facilitator who's not in the room to run hybrid meetings, then everyone follows a set of rules that levels the playing field. If anyone wants to ask a question, they have to raise their hands, either physically or virtually. All team members join via Microsoft Teams regardless of whether they are in the room or participating from home. The chat function is used by everyone to ask questions or share additional information.

Block time for collaboration and deep work

Let go of the idea that your team needs to meet all the time by making team members comfortable with working asynchronously. Block time for deep work, but also protect collaboration time.

If you don't manage your calendar, someone else will steal your time and focus from you.

Timeboxing is a powerful tool for asynchronous-first cultures. It's about blocking different periods of time to work on different things—from focus work to casual collaboration.

Block time for focus work and invite others to do the same. Respect other people's prior commitments if you want them to respect yours – don't override blocked time. Reserve collaboration time – the moment for real-time collaboration. Lastly, reduce the need to respond to emails or Slack messages immediately. Write a team agreement: what's the response protocol for email, text, Slack messages, etc.

Time is your most precious asset; be intentional in how you spend it.

Master the art of documentation

Proper – almost obsessive – documentation is the secret sauce of successful remote-first teams.

Create a single source of information that everyone can access and contribute to. You can start with a single company web page or repository in Notion, Google Docs, or software like Jira, GitLab, or GitHub. Everyone on the team should put time and effort into systematically documenting decisions, research, changes to processes, etc.

Documentation provides clarity and consistency, protecting people's focused time. Rather than interrupting your colleagues for information, you can go directly to the single source of truth. Similarly, if there's a conflict, people can direct colleagues to an already-documented agreement instead of relying on personal opinions.

GitLab recommends a "handbook-first" approach, meaning they document everything in their handbook before it's even implemented. Although this requires an up-front investment in time and effort, it pays off by reducing mistakes, friction, and time in the long run.

Documentation builds more robust, informed, trusting, and connected collaboration. When you're working from home, you don't have the luxury of visiting someone's desk to ask a question or join in a conversation. Documentation is an efficient way to find answers without needing human help.

Making documentation everyone's responsibility ensures inclusion and avoids the burden of having only a few people take care of it.

Stop waiting for the boss

Meetings should not be person dependent but progress-focused. The purpose of a meeting is not to keep stakeholders happy but to ensure that projects move forward.

If someone can't make it, they should be the ones to catch up. By not starting meetings on time, companies punish those who are disciplined instead of the offenders (those who always show up late).

In power-driven cultures, meetings don't start until the boss arrives. This creates the wrong impression: that the meeting is designed around one person instead of a topic that needs to be addressed or solved.

At Pixar, it's okay for a leader to step into a meeting and be surprised. The animation movie studio operates under the idea that the work needs to move on whether the manager is present or not. And, if decisions were made, the manager cannot change things back but must continue building from what was already decided.

Great leaders trust their teams and let them make progress without being involved in every step. Adopting this principle has helped many of my clients not just reduce the number of meetings but also the amount of missed deadlines.

Recap—Preventing the Meeting Hangover

Getting rid of meeting addiction requires discipline. You need to replace bad old habits with better ones. Tackle the root cause, not the hangover symptoms.

Discipline is the secret sauce of high-performing hybrid teams. The best way to deal with meeting hangover is to have fewer meetings, for starters.

Defaulting to asynchronous, obsessive documentation, blocking time for deep work, shortening meetings, and making participation optional, are critical steps to turn meetings into the last resort.

Most importantly, leaders and team members must abide by the same rules. You cannot improve your culture if sometimes we do this and sometimes not, or if some people follow the new practices and others don't.

Improve your meeting culture by focusing on the system. A better meeting culture is the result of discipline. Be intentional, put in the effort, and act consistently.

To get more insights about how to improve your meeting culture, read my new book Remote, Not Distant or let's chat about how we help teams get rid of their meeting addiction.

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