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Can We Really Break Our Meeting Habits?


Someone stressed out in a meeting
Image: goodluz -
Love them or hate them, meetings have become the backbone of how we think about work today. Whether for quick brainstorming or nitty-gritty quarterly planning, many of us have come to accept that a significant part of our day will be stuck in an in-person or video meeting collaborating on projects or discussing how to tackle business challenges. But it’s not uncommon for an employee to look around and ask themselves, “Why the heck am I even here?”
Many employees have begun questioning the time spent in meetings, spurred in part by the surge of video meetings during COVID. Just as “you’re on mute” has become the common refrain of video meetings, “that could have been an email” has been the rallying cry of knowledge workers who are frustrated with pointless meetings. The slogan has appeared on shirts and coffee mugs, and has even inspired a candle in its name. Likewise, employees are just tired of sitting in back-to-back meetings all day, and simply want a break.
To the latter concern, recent research from Microsoft’s Human Factors Lab shows the negative impact of back-to-back meetings on individuals. The Microsoft researchers compared the brain activity of people who had four back-to-back meetings with those who had 10-minute breaks between meetings. They found that the participants who had no breaks in between meetings had a heightened level of mental stress throughout, especially when it came to the third and fourth meetings, Microsoft said.
Microsoft this week proposed two ways to address this dilemma. First, as shared in a blog post, it has introduced a new Outlook calendar feature that provides a way to build in meeting in breaks. This feature allows admins to set organization-wide scheduling defaults, which can shorten meetings and create meeting breaks. For example, HR could work with IT to implement a policy that blocks out five-minute breaks ahead of 30-minute meetings or 15-minute breaks after hour-long meetings, Microsoft explained. In addition to organizational defaults, users can change their personal meeting settings to default to shorter meeting durations, Microsoft said.
Second, Microsoft is enhancing the Insights app available on its recently introduced Viva employee experience platform with new features launching next week. These include a reflection feature for identifying patterns in mood and a praise feature for scheduling praise reminders. The previously revealed Virtual Commute feature also will become available next week, with additional wellbeing features planned for later this year. This includes a curated set of guided meditations and mindful experiences from wellness app Headspace, designed to allow employees to disconnect from work in the evening or relax their minds before a big meeting.
With these features, Microsoft aims to combat meeting-related fatigue, but I wonder if it’s missing the mark slightly. Yes, the ability to default meeting lengths and add breaks can be helpful to some employees. But just as meeting defaults can be set, they can be changed, and I wonder how soon old meeting habits will reemerge.
To be blunt, breaking away from a culture of meetings might be hard. Workplace strategists have proposed no-meeting days. But what happens to the day before and after designated no-meeting days? Are workplaces simply robbing Peter to pay Paul, shifting meetings from one day to the other without any real thought as to whether a meeting is even required in the first place?
Like so many things, corporate leadership needs to listen to employees about their meeting experiences, and embrace a change in meeting culture from the top down. Without listening to employees intently and compassionately, and without leading by example, leaders run the risk of enacting changes that won’t make a positive impact — and then we are back to square one.