It has been acknowledged numerous times by varying people and in multiple formats, how the period-that-will-not-be-named forced a shift in ways of working. The benefits of working from home and new-found flexibility it enabled has been discussed again and again, with the overall sentiment of these conversations being positive; work-life balance has never been better.
I don’t disagree with this narrative. When I moved to London in 2017 to pursue a life that my quiet hometown just couldn’t offer me, I found myself in a constant state of dizzying anxiety — a state I have since come to realise was induced almost entirely by the relentless feeling of being in a rush; commuting, running from meeting to meeting, frantically hot footing it to a post-work gym class located two tube lines away from the office.
The slower pace of life that flexible working affords us is something I am hugely grateful for, but I fear it has given way to a new catalyst for workplace anxiety. Zoom culture.
Businesses seem to be overcompensating for the lack of in-person connection with meeting timetables that require Tetris style calendar management, with people spending an average of ten hours a week in virtual meetings (an average I can confidently guess our client-facing teams surpass). Of course, virtual meetings are a critical element of hybrid working, but we’ve reached a point where the level of meetings is negatively impacting workers and businesses, and some companies are starting to wake up to this. Shopify has announced that it will conduct a “calendar purge” in 2023, requiring staff to ditch recurring meetings with more than three people. The business’ chief operating officer Kaz Netajian told employees in a memo that the new rules will “delete nearly 10,000 events which equates to approximately 76,500+ hours of meetings”.
So, what are the negative effects of Zoom culture? And how can we address the issues without losing the connection we’ve worked to build?
Firstly, a study of brainwave activity conducted by Microsoft revealed that brain activity associated with stress rose as the number of consecutive video meetings increased, and increased stress not only impacts our mental health but massively reduces productivity. Secondly, in addition to reducing the time we have to deliver work, virtual meetings have been found to inhibit creativity. A recent study from Columbia University showed that people who work over Zoom have 20% fewer ideas than those who meet face to face.
Without the non-verbal social cues of in-person meetings, we tend to laser-focus on our screens in an attempt to read the expressions of our co-workers and to ensure we look engaged, but the downside of this is that it prevents our eyes and minds from wandering. And when it comes to creativity, wandering is crucial.
And finally, one of the most negative effects of rigid calendars is the loss of spontaneous conversation. Those five minute chats you have whilst making a coffee that untangle a problem you’ve been mulling over alone for hours, or back-and-forth dialogues you have access to while you’re strategising on a large project have been lost. But how do we get it back?
Meeting flexibility is one obvious solution
We may have 15 hours of meeting in our diaries each week, but do we need to attend them all, every week? In many cases, a recurring meeting will achieve the same outcome with 50% of its attendees as it would with the full number, so why are we still sitting through calls that don’t require us?
Non-linear working hours are also a fantastic way to give employees the creative space they need. For those of us who find our brains running at full speed outside the designated 9-5 schedule, choosing to shift our working hours around our own productivity is hugely beneficial, but this is only possible without the constraints of non-stop calls.
Technology can help here, too
When discussing this topic with our Creative Director recently, we questioned why Teams hasn’t yet adapted to enable spontaneous collaboration. One suggestion would be a ‘huddle’ feature, in which a user can add multiple people to an instant call to discuss a specific idea or challenge. These would be entirely optional based on people’s availability and could even be capped at 15 minutes to ensure they’re kept efficient. (And on efficiency, meetings should be reserved for discussion, not for information sharing).
Finally, one of the simplest ways to reduce meetings is by taking it back to basics, with a good old fashioned phone call. If a client email leads to more questions, why wait for a half hour slot in three days’ time to get answers when a five-minute chat could sort everything on the spot? Ultimately, this is a culture challenge. To break these patterns and change ways of working will take time and, most importantly, cross-business buy-in; but it’s a shift that businesses would be wise to encourage to get the best out of their employees.
Featured image: Daniel Mingook Kim / Unsplash