Virtual work meetings have their time and place in a world where governments can introduce lockdowns at the drop of a hat — but they can also quickly dominate and undermine people who work from home. Maureen Kyne explains.
It is a familiar feeling for public servants working from home (WFH) across the country: on to the third virtual meeting of the day and watching the weary, pixelated faces of their co-workers flash with mild annoyance when they realise this latest dial-in could have been a one-line email instead.
People crane their necks forward, looking into the little camera portal of their standard-issue laptop (perhaps from a slightly unflattering low angle) and lose a little bit of their soul into the digital abyss.
‘Why are we here?’ you hear a chorus of telepathic voices chime in, as someone forces a smile and another person turns off their camera for the duration of the meeting to tend to mysterious and inexplicable business that surely is only a distraction from whatever it is they were meant to focus on in this meeting.
Another day in WFH paradise, haunted by the spectre of too many virtual meetings either conducted poorly or organised for all the wrong reasons. And not nearly half of them are as entertaining as the notoriously chaotic Handforth Parish Council Zoom meeting that went viral in February or the American lawyer stuck with a kitty-cat filter during the beginning stages of a virtual court appearance.
According to workplace consultant Maureen Kyne, the misuse of digital video conferencing platforms in a work context is a lot more serious than what has colloquially become known as ‘Zoom fatigue’.
The truth is, it undermines productivity and risks eroding work environments that used to be trusting when regular and ad hoc meetings were largely held in-person.
What do we want? – Fewer and more focused virtual meetings – When do we want it? – Now!
“The question to ask in general is would you normally be doing a daily meeting if you were onsite?” Kyne says.
“Sometimes managers are utilising these daily virtual meetings to micromanage their staff.
“Whereas, if your manager picked up the phone and had a natural phone conversation with you, that’s more personal and you feel more included in that discussion.”
Kyne says that phone calls, even unscheduled ones, may not have the literal visibility that meetings via platforms like Microsoft Teams, WebEx conferencing or Zoom video hook ups do — but they offer a distraction-free and genuine connection that tends to be less invasive or threatening.
“If you’re truly listening, it’s amazing what you pick up when you put the phone up to your ear because you’re focused on that person, and you’re focused on listening to what that person is actually talking about, rather than actually looking at them,” Kyne says.
“We’ve been bypassing using that phone call for a Zoom call, because we think that that’s what people want to do.”
Kyne explains that one of the threatening or daunting aspects of a video call is that it calls upon participants to engage in a level of performance, which is not only taxing but inappropriate to be asking employees to constantly deliver on top of their ordinary outputs.
She adds that if workplaces want their employees to do more of this, they should invest in broadcast presentation training to this end.
“You know, people get stage fright. I think that that’s where we’re seeing these changes in behaviour – people are pushing back, and people are more mentally and psychologically exhausted because they’re on stage,” Kyne says.
“It’s not like just in a normal room, but you’re actually on stage and more visible. Every slight indifference or difference is actually being magnified.”
All things in moderation
Kyne concedes that the potential benefits of virtual meetings are huge — but harnessing them for the good of the workplace and employees is a balancing act that requires a deliberate and considered approach.
The Melbourne-based consultant says the overuse of video conference facilities likely stems from over-enthusiasm about all the new things it can offer — including more far reaching and ongoing connection — without a view to how it can impair people’s behaviour or wear them down.
“We’ve got people who are saying that they’re mentally exhausted because of this new environment that they’re working within and can’t wait to get back to the workplace to feel like they’ve been going back to some sort of normality,” Kyne says.
“This is going across the full range of employees — staff in their 20s to staff in their 60s are all struggling with video conferencing the same way.”
New research from Stanford University confirmed in April that the phenomenon of ‘Zoom fatigue’ is real, concluding that women suffer from the affliction more than their male peers because they take shorter breaks between meetings.
Kyne also adds that workplaces should be on the lookout for bad middle managers who are tempted to use the virtual meeting function to micromanage staff.
“It will have a huge impact on productivity, and people will pull back. Their discretionary effort [at work] will become less and less and less,” Kyne says.
“We actually have to make allowances and provide better flexibility for our employees working in these new WFH environments.
“If an employee’s delivering what is required on a daily basis, it doesn’t really matter when they start their work or finish their work. As long as it’s not impacting on the overall running of the organisation on a day to day basis, I think we need to be more flexible.”
Five ways to overcome online meeting fatigue at work
Here are Kyne’s top five tips for workplaces wanting to improve the way they use video conferencing technology at work:
- Establish rules. Workplaces need to create some boundaries around the use of video conferencing so employees are not engaging with employees, canvassing ideas and making decisions solely on Zoom. Kyne suggests limiting the number of virtual meetings a day and establishing guidelines around what is deemed a necessary video meeting will allow employees to have time away from the intensity of long back-to-back meetings. Educating managers on the benefits of encouraging short breaks in between meetings will also help refresh staff.
- Provide training. In the rush to use video conferencing, organisations have embraced the technology without understanding and capitalising on its offerings. Features such as chat rooms, and white boards and the ability to use these to collaborate in small teams are an alternative to the intense face-to-face, one camera draining video meeting most people are accustomed to.
- Think before you Zoom. Not all communication requires a Zoom meeting. Instead of scheduling multiple video meetings, see if a client or colleague is open to sending updates via email, or even a quick debrief over the phone. And for those who insist on video conferencing, Kyne says phone calls and text messages can often be just as effective.
- Send out an agenda. Clearly define the purpose of the meeting from the start. Having a purpose will help decide if the meeting is warranted and an agenda will determine the length of the meeting. Ask yourself, does this need to be two hours? Probably not.
- What about stand up meetings? Kyne says the Zoom workplace needs to change because it has made us physically and mentally lazy and scheduling back-to-back meetings doesn’t lead to better engagement, greater productivity or even a greater bottom line. She wants to see a return to walk and talk meetings; having phone hook ups with colleagues when walking to get a coffee like people used to do pre COVID. She recommends stand up meetings becoming a daily ritual. Schedule an hour meeting and ask everyone to stand up or go outside for the remaining 15 minutes of the meeting and you may find yourself achieving better results during the last moments of the meeting.
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