3 strategies to solve for common meeting problems

Written by 
Jim Kalbach
November 15, 2023
A graphic with a blue background and black text that reads 'Do you feel like you're always on call(s)?'
3 strategies to solve for common meeting problems
Written by 
Jim Kalbach
November 15, 2023

How'd we end up in a world where the mere thought of a meeting elicits a collective sigh? 

The roots of this issue extend well beyond the recent upheavals caused by the pandemic.

The truth is, meetings were showing signs of wear and tear long before ‘Zoom fatigue’ became a universally recognizable (and relatable) term. Whether conducted in person, remotely, or in a hybrid fashion, common indicators of suboptimal meetings have plagued corporate culture. 

Picture one person hijacking the conversation while others struggle to be heard, a lack of a clear purpose or agenda, and attendees showing up unprepared. Sound familiar? 

Yet, our investigation has unveiled a primary culprit contributing to ‌widespread disdain for meetings — the failure to critically evaluate if a meeting is genuinely necessary in the first place.

Paradoxically, while people like to meet, they don’t like meetings. 

In the traditional office setting, "collaboration" often became synonymous with real-time meetings. The question then becomes: How did collaboration, a concept born from the desire for cohesive teamwork, transform into a source of dread?

Collaboration overload

Enter Zoom fatigue — the unwelcome companion that arrived uninvited with the pandemic. In a swift pivot from in-person gatherings to virtual meetings, we inadvertently magnified the issue. 

One-on-one sessions, standing team meetings, social events, and even virtual happy hours‌ — ‌all seamlessly (kind of…) transitioned to conference calls. The consequence? A day packed with back-to-back meetings, leaving little room for a breather, and even less daylight on our calendars.

Collaboration overload is very real. 

In a large-scale study across Microsoft, for instance, the company found many signs of collaboration overload: 1) time spent in conference calls more than doubled globally during the pandemic; 2) chats increased 45% per week; and 3) 40.6 billion more emails were delivered.

Rob Cross has done some of the most extensive research into this area, summarized in his full-length book Beyond Collaboration Overload. Elsewhere, he’s reported that “collaborative work — time spent on email, messaging, phone, and video calls — has risen 50% or more over the past decade to consume 85% or more of most people’s work weeks.”

In short, if you feel you’re on calls too much, you’re not alone. 

However, there's a silver lining to the virtual storm. When we explore alternative modes of collaboration, particularly asynchronous methods, a different narrative unfolds. Not only do individuals find themselves with fewer calls, but they also reclaim a semblance of control over their schedules. 

The shift from constant synchronous engagement to a more flexible approach opens the door to increased productivity and a reprieve from the fatigue induced by perpetual video calls.

RTO isn’t helping

The return to the office (RTO) was supposed to be the solution‌ — ‌bring people back, and the endless parade of virtual meetings would fade away. 

Well, not quite.

The reality is, even in the physical realm of the office, the curse of perpetual calls persists. The issue has been aptly dubbed "Zooming from the desk." Despite being physically present, hybrid workers often find themselves engrossed in calls with colleagues from different locations. 

An informal hybrid worker experience mapping project revealed firsthand accounts of frustration. We heard things like: 

  • "I go to the office only to spend my entire time on calls because my team is scattered across different cities."
  • "About 70% of my office hours are spent talking to people who aren't physically near me. Can't I just do this from home?"

A subsequent informal LinkedIn poll further underscored the prevalence of this problem: Nearly 65% of respondents admitted to spending half of their office days (or more) on calls. And alarmingly, 22% revealed that over three-fourths of their in-office time is consumed by virtual meetings. Yikes. 

But Zooming from the office isn’t like taking calls from a home office. It comes with its own set of discomforts and health concerns. 

You see, open floor plans require the use of headsets or earbuds for call privacy, a departure from the convenience of speaking directly into a computer mic. For many, wearing a headset for extended periods becomes not just inconvenient, but also quite uncomfortable.

Beyond the physical discomfort, concerns about hearing loss due to prolonged headset use at high volumes have surfaced in our discussions with hybrid workers. The hygiene aspect was also a worry for one person.

Strangely, this issue seems to be flying under the radar in discussions about ‌hybrid work. Despite its palpable impact on employee well-being, it remains conspicuously absent from the top challenges to address.

It’s not just the commute that workers are annoyed with under the new RTO mandates. It’s also the fact that their time spent on calls also hasn’t necessarily decreased and now it’s even more awkward and uncomfortable for them. 

So, how much time are employees spending on calls with remote colleagues while in the office? What are the underlying implications, and how can we alleviate their frustrations? 

Solving for modern work

We are in a time of incredible change and innovation in the workplace. Forward-looking organizations will actively reimagine how teamwork happens and work gets done. As things continue to shift, a re-balancing of teams, tools, and techniques will be needed.

Here are three ways to reduce the sense of being on calls all the time a work:

1. Leverage more asynchronous teamwork

In navigating the labyrinth of modern work culture, the solution to the pervasive meeting conundrum lies not in abandoning the shared workspace, but in reimaging how we collaborate. It’s time to embrace the liberating potential of asynchronous collaboration. 

Picture a workday where the incessant hum of back-to-back meetings is replaced by a thoughtful cadence, allowing individuals to engage with their tasks on their own terms. Maybe that meeting really could have been an email, indeed!

Related: 6 essential steps for building an async-first culture

The beauty of asynchronous collaboration lies in its ability to empower employees with control over their schedules, fostering a sense of autonomy and efficiency. By breaking free from the shackles of synchronous meetings, teams can curate a working environment that prioritizes deep focus, thoughtful communication, and a healthier work-life balance. 

Asynchronous collaboration requires more intentionality about how teamwork happens. It's not about abandoning real-time interactions but rather strategically weaving them into the fabric of a more flexible and sustainable workflow. 

Now is the time to reimagine teamwork. But don’t be daunted — you don’t have to go it alone. Luckily, our teams can help with resources, templates, and even training

2. Make meetings more focused, engaging, and efficient with collaboration methods

Imagine playing a game with no rules. It wouldn’t be fun, would it? It turns out that much of the enjoyment we get while playing comes from an agreed set of guidelines. When everyone knows how the rules work, ‌participation and involvement increase, and a group can really connect and be creative. 

That’s where collaboration methods come in. Collaboration methods provide “rules of engagement” for collaboration and allow team members to work together on an equal footing, generating better results. And at the same time, methods make work more playful. 

Related: Fixing bad meetings isn’t enough: it’s time to reimagine them

Collaboration methods, broadly defined, include any and all exercises, activities, games, frameworks, and techniques that thoughtfully direct team interaction. Think of them like sheet music for team collaboration: They provide a set of rules to follow and allow for creative freedom at the same time.

The LUMA System™, for instance, helps teams find the right techniques to use for innovation by guiding collaboration designers in a structured way. LUMA has distilled their portfolio down to 36 of the most effective tools for innovation — most of them in common use. You don’t need to know them all right away — a handful of them are enough to get you started. 

Henri Lipmanowicz and Keith McCandless, the authors of Liberating Structures, use the term “microstructures” to describe the rituals and habits that shape the way we work with others: “Consciously or not, microstructures are the way you organize all your routine interactions. They guide and control how groups work together. They shape your conversations and meetings.”

3. Implement meeting-free times and days

Part of the problem with being on calls all the time is that nagging feeling that you’re not accomplishing anything. Your to-do list just grows longer and longer, and you have no quality time to get to it. 

By designating certain days or time slots as meeting-free, employees have extended periods of uninterrupted time to focus on their tasks. Deep work, characterized by sustained attention and cognitive effort, requires concentration, and having periods of time without meetings allows individuals to delve deeply into complex projects or creative work.

Rapid context switching kills our ability to engage in deep work and overall productivity. Meeting-free periods minimize these interruptions, enabling employees to maintain a flow state and stay immersed in their work. 

Deep work is often the most productive time for individuals. Without the distraction of meetings, employees can accomplish more during these dedicated periods, leading to higher-quality outputs and faster task completion.

Get in touch with our Professional Services team to learn more about how to transform your work culture to embrace asynchronous collaboration. 

About the authors

About the authors

Jim Kalbach

Jim Kalbach

Chief Evangelist
Jim is a noted author, speaker, and instructor in innovation, design, and the future of work. He is currently Chief Evangelist at Mural, the leading visual work platform.