By: Laura Fay and Michael Seitchik 

During a recent client meeting, one of us decided to really shake things up: we talked over the phone and cut our meeting time in half. Hardly groundbreaking… or is it?

Gallup research uncovered that nearly 25% of the workforce often feels burned out at work, and nearly two thirds feel fatigued at some point or another. Granted, those are relatively fair and appropriate benchmarks, but keep in mind – those results came in before COVID hit and we were all relegated to our home offices. If you’re like most leaders out there, what once was just an occasional feeling of exhaustion has been compounded by one of the most significant shifts in workplace protocol: the emergence of video meetings as the new norm.

Prior to March, many meetings were held in person or over the phone. The idea of a broad virtual meeting was typically reserved for “special occasions,” such as quarterly all-team gatherings, strategy sessions, and so on. These days, you may find the default for all of your meetings is video, and when you emerge at the end of the day, you’re bleary-eyed, low energy, and completely wiped out… just in time to shift gears and tackle other roles – parent, friend, sibling, partner, caregiver. Something has to give.

With that in mind, we’re offering three recommendations for how to help your team rebalance their virtual workplace for mental sanity – and productivity – reasons.

1.   Break it up

There is a wealth of data that points to the physiological reasons why video meetings are more exhausting than in-person meetings. For the most part, you’re in a static position all day, with minimal movement. You’re staring at a screen, and even more challenging, you’re staring at a small video camera on the top of the screen to replicate eye contact. When employees are in a “gallery” view and can see all their colleagues they can also see themselves. Human nature has us more self-aware of and focused on how we look to others. And finally, those tiny ‘Brady Bunch’ video screens make it tough to read non-verbal cues. These things consume energy and leave your employees feeling spent.

So what do you do?

  • Allow for down time. People are used to walking to their next meeting, getting coffee, chatting at the water cooler – all of which provide natural breaks in the day. Implement a policy that helps mandate down time. For example, one company has a rule that all meetings last no more than 45 minutes and start at 15 minutes after the hour. That avoids the “back to back” nightmare.
  • Get off the screen. Conference phone calls can help break the cycle. Consider what criteria is necessary for a video meeting. Schedule video sessions only if:
    • A screen share is necessary to review materials
    • You’re leveraging breakout rooms for small group discussions
    • You need to use the whiteboard tool to brainstorm ideas
    • The topic is sensitive or personal – i.e. talent development, morale issues, one-on-one check-ins, etc. – to take advantage of non-verbal cues and necessary interpersonal connection
  • Walk it off. For one-on-one phone conversations, encourage and model “walking meetings.” Taking a stroll around your house or around the block while on a call can encourage more innovative ideas, perk up energy levels, and keep potential health issues at bay.
  • Know your options. When your team does need to be on video – particularly as participants (and not presenters) – ask them to use Speaker view. This eliminates individual video screens and centers one large video screen on the individual talking. It will provide more freedom for participants to get up, grab water, stretch – all without worrying that they are visible to everyone.
2.   Address the stress

Many leaders were concerned that productivity would drop for workers not used to working remotely. That hasn’t been the case. Productivity of workers has maintained consistent levels, but at what risk? Research indicates a spike in stress levels. The real threat is not that people working remotely will not work hard, but that stress will have a negative impact on their ability to be at their best. With remote work being a likelihood for many employees for the foreseeable future, you need to address the threats now.

So what do you do?

  • Check-in more and check-up less. Schedule one-on-one conversations that aren’t about business updates, project status, or timelines. Ask employees how they are handling the changes, what they need, and how you can support them. It’s easy to forget they may have many other commitments they are trying to balance and may need more accommodations than usual.
  • Party hardy. Send a message to employees that it’s ok to not be “on” all the time by scheduling virtual company events that have no business agenda. Social gatherings build connection, trust, and inclusion. We’ve found that having some sort of informal activity versus just gathering for conversation helps take the pressure off. Think music trivia. Bucket list challenge. Three truths and a lie. Photo of your life.
  • Be authentic. Share your own vulnerabilities and funny stories to level the virtual playing field. We know of a CEO whose two small children wanted to film his virtual company update – and he let them. Despite a wobbly camera and kid breathing in the background, that leader got more positive feedback from his employees than ever before. Humanizing yourself will send a message that perfection isn’t expected.
3.   Use the gift of gab

One of the things noticeably absent in a virtual environment is the lack of office water cooler chat. While you wouldn’t necessarily encourage your employees to gossip, research shows that there actually is a benefit to those side conversations. Social chatter can uncover when other employees are facing similar issues. They surface new ideas and ways of doing business. They create a network of informal sounding boards.

So what do you do?

  • Chat it up. Many companies have chat tools, but they often aren’t consistently used by team members. In this virtual environment, encourage the team to ‘get online.’ And make sure you get online yourself and people see you join in the dialogue. Sometimes the ability to bounce a quick idea off a colleague, ask about their weekend, or share a funny meme is the mental break they need between meetings.
  • Open the digital door. There may be too much pressure in today’s video environment to openly speak about concerns or frustrations, but it’s never been more important to gather feedback. Create a digital suggestion box that allows employees to share concerns, whether about case load, schedule, work-life balance, team dynamics, and so on. And make it clear you are reading the suggestions and make note when you respond so people are sure they are being heard.
  • Start a club. We may all be partaking in a little extra reading or Netflix these days. What better way to generate connection and bonding than to share your “best of” recommendations? Start an internal company blog or chat room, and allow employees to offer up their favorite books, shows, movies. If you participate yourself, you will encourage others to do so too.

COVID has proven to be a marathon, not a sprint. While we were all eager to jump into the virtual connection pool, many of us are regretting the enthusiasm with which video meetings were adopted. We need to pull back, recognize the need for balance, and adapt our own styles to meet employees where they are in the midst of this cycle through empathy, transparency, and thinking for the long haul.

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