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Meeting Overload is Burning Your Team Out: Here's How to Prevent It

Charles Kergaravat
September 30, 2021

Is your calendar full of meetings? You’re not alone. Statistics show that we are spending 5x more time in meetings now than we were before the pandemic.

Do you feel more productive since spending more time in meetings? Our guess is no. That’s probably because many of the meetings you’re attending are unnecessary or ineffective.

This leads to a drain on resources. Back in 2019, Doodle calculated the cost of ineffective meetings to be $399 billion. Employees spending time in too many bad meetings is literally burning your company cash by the minute.

And, meeting overload can lead to burnout, decreased productivity, and job dissatisfaction.

In this article, we’re going to cover some of the negative impacts that too many meetings can have on your business and show you how to regain control over meeting madness.

Signs that meeting overload has taken hold of your culture

Sound familiar? Every time your employees pull up their work calendars, they feel an overwhelming sense of dread. Their to-do list is piling up but their workday hours seem to be decreasing. The “meeting approaching” notifications that pop up on their screen not only interrupt their work but ignite hourly daggers of anxiety.

Unfortunately, this is the reality for many workers, especially since the pandemic has resulted in people spending more time in meetings. 56% of workers feel that “swamped calendars” are hurting their job performance, ​​according to Doodle.

Here’s how meeting overload negatively impacts your team, and how you can turn it all around.

Your team is suffering from burnout

When your team becomes overwhelmed with meetings, it can lead to stress and anxiety; and burnout isn’t far behind.

Burnout can impact a worker’s physical and mental health, leading to increased stress, fatigue, depression, anxiety and more. In a Leadership IQ study, 79% of team leaders have seen lowered productivity levels due to employee burnout, and 75% say they’ve seen employees make mistakes due to burnout.

Not only is your team burning out, but science shows they’re also suffering from “meeting recovery syndrome”. What’s that, you ask? When employees are forced to sit through a pointless meeting, they get frustrated and need to cool off afterwards. This leads to debriefing and commiserating with colleagues, which compounds frustration and actually makes the meeting anxiety worse.

Cutting back on the number of meetings your team has to deal with each week can be a game changer for someone who already has way too much on their plate. (We’ll tell you how to do this in the next section.)

There’s less time to focus on tasks

If you keep adding meetings but don’t decrease the task load, your team can fall behind.

The National Bureau of Economic Research found that since the onset of the pandemic, the number of meetings per person has increased by 12.9%. Additionally, due to this increase in meetings, the length of the average work day has increased by 48.5 minutes.

With so many people working from home, companies have often defaulted to holding meetings to keep in touch. But meetings and other forms of synchronous communication shouldn’t be causing your team to work longer hours.

Meetings are filled with multitasking

Microsoft recently ran a study on its own employees to pinpoint just how often they’re multitasking in meetings—and it’s happening more than you might think.

The results showed that people tend to multitask more often in recurring meetings than ad-hoc meetings. In addition, 30% of multitasking in virtual meetings involves checking emails while 25% involves opening, editing, and organizing files.

Multitasking also happens more often in longer meetings; it’s six times more likely in a meeting lasting 80 minutes versus 20 minutes.

What does this tell us?

These are obviously not productive or effective meetings that are having a real impact. And if this much multitasking is happening, it’s likely that time would be better spent in other ways.

If meeting overload has already taken hold of your company’s culture, it’s not too late to stop it in its tracks. Here’s our seven-step guide for how to get it right.

1. Evaluate pre-planned vs. ad-hoc meetings

Take a look at what your team’s existing meeting load looks like right now. How many of your teams’ meetings are pre-planned, and how often are teammates reaching out to “hop on a call to hash some things out?”.

This helps you identify where the majority of your team’s time is going. Next, you need to figure which of those meeting types are deemed valuable, and in what context.

To do that, ask your team upfront how much time they’re spending in meetings, how they feel about them in general and by meeting type, and so on.

From their answers, you’ll begin to be able to:

  • Evaluate which meetings types are valuable, which are unnecessary, and which can be asynchronous.
  • Discern if necessary meetings are being run inefficiently, thus wasting valuable time.
  • Understand if employees feel they are attending meetings they don’t need to be in.
  • Learn if employees feel they are being overly distracted and if that’s leading them to feel burnt out.
  • Gauge if recurring meetings like “all hands” or “project updates” are necessary and if they actually contribute to productivity and project success. 89% of people report attending a team meeting every week. We’re used to them, but is a weekly meeting truly necessary? Can the information be shared in a less time-consuming and distracting way? We certainly think so, and we’ll explain why and how shortly.
Most common type of meetings are weekly meetings.

We’ve also mentioned this UCI study before, but it bears repeating: when distracted from the task at hand, it can take workers an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get refocused. If ad-hoc check-ins are happening multiple times a day, it can seriously damage productivity and lead to anxiety and exhaustion.

Founder and CEO of Better Proposals Adam Hempenstall dealt with this on his own team:

“We had a case of meeting burnout about a year ago when we just got fed up with constantly meeting for things that could have been handled through email. Nowadays, we spend 10-15 minutes before scheduling any meeting just to think about one thing: should this person really be present in the meeting or not? Using this approach, we managed to cut down the number of our meetings as well as the number of people in an average meeting.”

Cutting down the number of meetings and ensuring the right people are in the meeting are great places to start. Here are a few other common reasons why meetings may be unnecessary,  whether pre-planned or ad-hoc:

  • The meeting has no problem to solve: This is what we were alluding to when we brought up recurring meetings above. Many recurring meetings don’t actually have an objective. Most of the time, they result in status updates that could have been accomplished by checking the project management system. The best time to hold meetings is when they contribute to relationship-building or when you are making a high-level decision, like signing off on a project milestone.
  • The agenda lacks purpose: If you don’t have an agenda, you won’t have a structure to follow, and you will end up wasting time. This is the fastest way to lead to tangents instead of purposeful conversations. An agenda helps to keep you on track before, during and after the meeting. You may even realize you don’t need a meeting after all, or can handle everything with asynchronous communication. This brings us to our next point.
  • Information could be acquired asynchronously: Regular updates are important, which is why we trick ourselves into thinking we need so many meetings! Lucky for you, there’s a better way. Asynchronous communication (especially async audio platforms like ours 😎) makes it easy to check-in, brainstorm, relay task progress, share your screen to highlight specific information, and so much more. The best part? People can reply in their own time, meaning less productivity-killing distractions and more valuable deep work.

Looking for more insights? We’ve studied 8 common types of remote meetings and ranked them by how hard they are to cancel. Don’t confuse hard with impossible. We also share guidance for how to make each one async.

Let’s look at how to foster a culture that allows for not only more distraction-free work but the time to unplug and recharge.

2. Foster a culture that respects free time

If you and your leadership team foster a mindset that puts meetings first and foremost, it’s going to be more difficult to address meeting overload head-on.

In order to radically change and save your culture from dissatisfaction and burnout, you need to take a top-down approach and practice what you preach.

Tammy Bjelland, CEO of Workplaceless, speaks on this:

“When leaders notice any signs of meeting overload or burnout, they should first look at how their own mindset and practices contribute. If a leader’s first response to anything is to schedule a meeting, or if meeting attendance is the primary way that team members stay in the loop, those are indicators that leaders prioritize meetings over any other type of collaborative activity. Leaders can begin to address this issue by establishing, maintaining, and enforcing meeting norms, and adopting more asynchronous communication practices and processes that can take the place of synchronous meetings.”

It’s important to both:

  • Foster a culture that doesn’t turn to face-to-face meetings first, and;
  • Respect your employees’ free time so that they have the space to recharge and the mental resources to produce high-quality work without risk of burnout

Work-life balance is extremely important. According to an Indeed burnout survey, 52% of respondents have experienced some form of burnout in 2021. And 27% say it’s because they feel like they can’t unplug from work.

If you want happy, loyal employees, don’t expect them to work 48.5 extra minutes everyday to accommodate for an unnecessary meeting load.

Here are three ways you can foster a culture that respects free time within your company:

Put focus weeks in place

The first option is to institute company-wide meeting-free weeks (except for a few critical meetings that are valuable, if absolutely needed).

It’s important to implement this cross-departmentally rather than on a team-by-team basis so that there are no infringements on the meeting-free policy.

Now, your team has an entire week that can be completely dedicated to deep work with little to no interruptions. Deep work means that your team can actually focus on one task for an extended period of time—distraction-free.

This leads to higher quality work in a shorter amount of time. As a result, they’re more motivated to work because it actually feels good and achievable in the allotted time frame.

Block off time for zero meetings

An alternative option is to simply block off time slots when meetings cannot be scheduled.

Perhaps the first half of each day is dedicated to distraction-free work while afternoons are open for meetings. Or, consider this: data shows that people prefer to schedule meetings around mid-morning, from 10am-12pm.

It’s likely easier to institute these policies company-wide. However, with this option, the times may vary from employee to employee. And that’s where things get sticky.

For example, say your employee, Jane, has to pick her kids up from school around 2pm, but she continues working when they return home. Jane may prefer to hold meetings earlier in the day while her kids are at school.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Melissa has made a habit of going to her local coffee shop for deep work every morning. The ambiance helps her to focus but isn’t necessarily conducive for video calls. She blocks off most mornings from meetings and schedules them throughout the afternoons instead.

You want to offer the flexibility that your team needs to do their best work, while still making sure that if Jane and Melissa need to meet, they can find the time to do so.

If you want to empower your team members to set their preferred meeting-free time blocks, consider requiring everyone to be available for a certain amount of time one day during the week.

Default to asynchronous meetings

Our last tip is to default to asynchronous meetings before a face-to-face (or synchronous) meeting is even considered. We touched on the benefits of this above, so now let’s look at how asynchronous meetings can efficiently replace synchronous ones.

We know you’re thinking: “How do you have meetings when not everyone is present? Isn’t that the exact opposite of what a meeting is?”

Not necessarily. But you’re not alone in thinking that. In a Fellow survey on The Future of Meetings, one-third of respondents had never heard of asynchronous meetings before.

Asynchronous meetings are organized meetings—they just don’t occur in real-time. Conversations happen and ideas are fleshed out, but it’s done at each employee’s preferred time. And—unlike the majority of synchronous meetings—they’re actually productive.

Let’s walk you through the flow of an asynchronous meeting:

  1. Set a time in the calendar for the async meeting to take place
  1. Put together an impactful agenda. Have everyone involved in the meeting add their talking points by a certain deadline so the discussion can begin.
  1. Create a collaborative document or asynchronous meeting channel that all meeting “attendees” can access in order to add their thoughts and ideas. This could consist of both text, screen sharing, doc sharing, and audio. Here’s an example of what this might look like inside Yac:
Sending a voice message in the yac app.
  1. Require key players (that you call out in your message) to leave some kind of response so you know they’ve seen it. Everyone else, even if they have nothing to add, can optionally “react” to signify they’ve heard the message, but this should not be required.
  1. Share outcomes in a doc that people can comment on, follow-up with next steps with a voice message, and assign tasks in your project management system (or wherever you are tracking task progress)

Asynchronous meetings can be a great way to minimize interruptions to your team’s workday. In-person and virtual meetings should be a last resort.

Don’t panic—you don’t need to replace every single meeting with asynchronous meetings. But, this option is packed with benefits. Companies using Yac to replace meetings are saving 35 minutes per person each day and replacing Zoom with Yac, which is a nice way to combat the growing problem of Zoom fatigue.

3. Make the shift to asynchronous communication

We just covered asynchronous meetings, but let’s talk about async a little more. We are passionate that async communication significantly improves communication, collaboration, and work/life balance. So, we think it’s worth our effort to explain how it works in more detail.

We're working longer and longer.

In Buffer’s 2021 State of Remote Work study, 52% of respondents said they’re now in more meetings as a result of the shift to remote working. And partially because of that, 45% say they’re working longer hours than they used to.

Back-to-back meetings, phone calls, video calls and more have a negative impact on your team—and it’s infiltrating remote working cultures. Async-friendly work cultures can solve all of these problems.

In our guide, we’ve defined asynchronous communication as, “the means of exchanging key information independent of requiring an immediate response from stakeholders or team members alike.”

Some examples of asynchronous communication would be:

  • A blog writer has finished up an article draft and tags the editors in the designated project management software so they can make edits when they’re ready.
  • The CEO sends out a company-wide voice message sharing updates for the month instead of holding an all-hands meeting. No one is expected to respond.
  • Your team leader sends you a video screen share with an audio overlay to explain the changes they made to your website designs and to discuss next steps. You reply when you can with your thoughts and confirmation that you’ll get started on the updates.

Let’s talk a bit more about how this can work for your team.

Jordan Walker
Founder & COO of Yac

Meeting overload is absolutely crushing teams. There's a vicious and toxic cycle happening in teams all across the world right now; the cycle is, the team has a meeting, messages then get missed in their messenger, then they have another meeting to go over the missed messages, and repeat. It's insane.

To combat this overload, I recommend three things:

  1. Set boundaries and learn to say no.
  2. Determine what is actually important verse not for you and your team. Think, will everything fall apart if this is not answered or solved right now?
  3. Lastly, try async meetings.

After making all three changes, teams using Yac are now saving hundreds of thousands of meeting cost per year. This has not only led to a happier balance sheet, but employees find themselves more productive and happier at work.

Create asynchronous communication guidelines

Async is unintrusive and can be a gamechanger for a team overcome with meeting overload. But you don’t want to simply send out an email that says, “No more meetings—async from here on out,” without putting together some kind of policy or guidelines for your team to follow.

A team new to async will likely need some guidance. Consider the following when creating your own terms:

  • Invest in the proper tools and outline the ways your team can use them, such as how impactful and easy it is to send a Yac to give feedback or run a brainstorming session. Or, how powerful it is to send a screen share highlighting project updates in one of your favorite async collaboration tools, like Notion, Almanac, or Google Docs.
  • Pinpoint guidelines for each communication channel that let your team know when to use email vs. instant messaging vs. async audio vs. project management software for various types of communication.
  • Document your work so you build a culture where your team shares and documents work regularly
  • Redefine response time expectations and empower your team to turn off notifications so they can address emails and messages when it’s convenient for them.
  • Start shifting to async voice over real-time meetings to ensure your point gets across without the time commitment that a meeting requires.

Having clear guidelines helps set your team off on the right foot when you first get started with async.

4. Establish a strict and well-defined purpose for every meeting

Let’s elaborate on a thread we touched on above: ensuring that every meeting scheduled has a specific purpose.

According to the Fellow’s report, the number one meeting pet peeve is status updates. These types of meetings can—and should—be done asynchronously.

Use this checklist to help your team decide if a meeting is actually necessary:

  • Is the issue urgent or time-sensitive?
  • Do you need to talk it out and make a major decision?
  • Is there enough time for all parties involved to adequately prepare for the meeting?
  • Does the meeting have a clear and well-defined agenda?

If the answer is yes, then you can feel confident in scheduling that meeting. But we want to put even more significance on that last point because a structured meeting agenda should be the gold standard for a productive and effective meeting.

Create a well-defined meeting agenda

If you want to get the most out of your meetings, make sure you have an organized agenda laid out beforehand. An agenda that outlines the necessary goals and talking points of the meeting can help keep everyone on track throughout.

When creating your own well-defined agenda, first make sure you put it in front of all meeting participants so they can add their discussion points as well.

Here are a few more tips on how to create a meeting agenda that keeps your team on task and meets your objectives:

  • Explain the why, so that everybody knows why exactly you’re holding this meeting and that it does, in fact, have a specific purpose
  • Start with your meeting goals as every meeting you schedule should have a set objective in mind before it hits the calendar.
  • Define your outcomes so that the group knows what is expected by the end (e.g. decisions must be made by the end of this meeting).
  • Send your agenda document to all involved team members and have them insert their main talking points or questions to be answered along with why they want to broach that topic. If, for any reason, you need to remove talking points that don’t fit the meeting objective, let the person who added it in know what other routes they can take to get the answers they need.
  • Organize the questions and action items, so the meeting flows seamlessly from one topic to the next.
  • Estimate the amount of time each topic needs and wrap up the discussion when you hit that point. This ensures that 30-minute meetings don’t turn into hour-long meetings that get nowhere. Once the timeframe is complete, finalize the decision amongst your team.
  • Designate a leader for each topic, so everyone takes ownership of certain aspects of the meeting. Not only does this help all team members feel like they’re involved, it also makes sure they pay attention throughout the meeting, eliminating the potential of multi-tasking.

Once you’ve outlined each of the above items, you should have an agenda that keeps your meeting on task and improves productivity as much as possible.

5. Incorporate breaks between meetings

When was the last time you had back-to-back meetings? Did it leave you feeling stressed or slightly overwhelmed?

Our brains need breaks. And a recent Microsoft study proves that. They had 14 participants wear electroencephalogram (EEG) equipment during video calls to track their brain activity throughout two different sessions of meetings.

In the first session, four 30-minute meetings were held back-to-back with no breaks in between. In the second session, participants had 10-minute breaks in between each half-hour meeting.

Throughout that first session of nonstop meetings, stress increased the entire time. However, in the second session, the 10-minute breaks allowed for a “reset,” reducing overall stress and allowing the brain to switch gears before diving into a different video call.

While you may think holding all of your meetings in a condensed time frame helps to consolidate them and save time, it’s actually increasing stress levels, which leads to decreased productivity.

Incorporating breaks between meetings should be a company standard so that everyone on your team has the ability to wind down after a meeting so they can focus more on the next one.

6. Create flexibility in how people participate

People prefer interaction in different ways. For example, consider how introverts and extroverts digest information and take action. Introverts prefer to have more time to reflect before making decisions, while extroverts can often prefer the opposite.

Allowing flexibility in the ways people participate and come to decisions in meetings and come is a key part of overcoming meeting overload. It’s also another way that async comes into play (not having to respond in real-time is incredibly empowering, and this flexibility decreases stress and makes people feel more comfortable when crafting a response).

However, if a meeting is required, start thinking about how that meeting can be more accessible for everyone on your team.

Here are a few ideas for improving meeting flexibility for your participants:

  • Start the meeting by having everyone brainstorm in silence
  • Break attendees off into smaller groups to discuss ideas
  • Use digital whiteboards or find other ways to make the meeting more visual
  • Get a facilitator involved to call on team members that have a tendency not to speak up
  • Use a combination of async and synchronous communication so team members can reflect on their ideas and decisions before a real-time meeting is called

Allow attendees to keep their cameras off

For many participants, having their cameras on is distracting and nerve-wracking. A VIRTIRA study on webcam usage showed that 49% of respondents agree that being on camera makes them more exhausted than if their cameras were off.

And to look further into the introvert and extrovert spectrum, 58% of introverts reported that being on camera made them more exhausted while 40% of extroverts made the same claim.

61% of respondents said that video was required during their video calls while 25% stated that they felt peer pressure to turn on their cameras even if it wasn’t required.

Being transparent about allowing your team members to keep their cameras off (if it helps them to feel more focused and present in the meeting) is key to improving attitudes about video calls and remote meetings overall.

Keep this caveat in mind, though: cameras-off can lead to more multi-tasking. That’s because while turning your camera off does reduce the cognitive load, that frees up brain space to focus on other tasks that need doing. Which begs the question: if team members aren’t required to participate in the meeting, do they really need to be there?

7. Do encourage peers to connect

One reason people secretly love meetings is because of the social interaction it promotes. And when 54% of remote workers say they feel lonely at least some of the time, it’s easy to think that having more meetings can solve the problem.

This is a slippery slope that ultimately leads to meeting overload.

Now, we’re not saying that “zero meetings” is the solution for every business. Taking that idea too literally can lead to damage in overall company culture, rather than the improved productivity you’re looking for.

Instead, encourage people to meet for the right reasons:

  1. Onboarding new employees: When onboarding new team members, use tools that facilitate virtual coffee breaks with current employees so they can start to create deeper connections.
  2. At the start and end of projects: Team members should come together at the start of a new project to ensure everybody is on the same page (and to set appropriate expectations), and at the end of a big project when it’s important to do a retrospective.
  3. To facilitate team-wide bonding: Team building exercises to allow for your team members to build deeper connections. And, coming together to provide updates on the company’s mission or feature roadmap progress and timelines makes everybody feel like they’re working towards a collective goal, which is motivating.

Meetings aren’t the root of all evil, but going overboard can have a serious negative impact on your team.

Key takeaways

As a team leader, fighting burnout and improving the work-life balance of your team should be a top priority. And one of the ways you can do this is by preventing meeting overload throughout your department or company.

We’ve outlined several key tips that can help you get there. Meetings may never go away completely, but incorporating asynchronous communication and collaboration can improve productivity and foster a happier workplace culture.

If you’re ready to give async a try, request a demo to learn more about how Yac can help.