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Meeting Overload

The pandemic has led to an explosion of over-communication and meeting-overload for many. How do we rethink about how meetings play an important role in our work, whilst also protecting our own energy levels during the day?

Over the past decade meetings have become a big reason of why people avoid jobs and want to work for themselves - endless aimless meetings, which seem to add no value to the day. An HBR article in 2018 stated organisations hold more than 3 billion meetings each year. What that number has risen to this year, I can only imagine.

Meetings get a bad rap

Meetings aren’t inherently bad - providing they have purpose (why are we meeting), the right people for the task, a good agenda, structure and process, and some sort of way of taking action or understanding what progress was made (it can be easily remembered as the 4Ps if you like that sort of thing: Purpose, People, Process, Progress).
But this year, the role of meetings have shifted dramatically - formalised get-togethers over zoom (other technologies are available) have been the only way of getting people together, since we’ve had chance encounters removed from our list of interactions, due to working from home. Our calendars have shifted from mostly white backgrounds with the occasional blob of colour where you’ll be meeting, to a blocked out wall of back to back booked in interactions with people - a mix of sessions where agreements are to be made, ideas to be dreamt up, feedback to be given, 1:1s, group sessions, quick checkins and catchups, and where we used to have at least the time taken to move from one room to another between meetings, back-to-back conversations are all too common.
As we head towards winter, with new restrictions, it doesn’t like we’ll be stepping away from the diary of doom just yet - so it’s time to rethink how you plan your working sessions and meetings with others - so that you’re not only able to get some work done, but also consider your own emotional energy and wellbeing during the day.
When self-employed, especially if you’ve been used to long periods of time just focused on getting the work done, this dramatic shift towards over-communication can be challenging, and even if your working model is very much collaborative, our clients have seemingly shifted to more communication than before, with piles of tools, tracking and meetings that can feel like there’s less and less time to actually get stuff done.

Moving towards a more sustainable way of managing meeting overload

Here are our tips on moving towards a more positive way of thinking about and planning for more meetings:
Meetings are Work - if you’re feeling like “I have no time to work!” then reconsider what meetings are to you - if a meeting is well designed, has purpose and outcomes, it is work. Perhaps you’re helping share an idea, making a decision on what to do next, or coming up with new thinking. They’re certainly time you should be charging for, as many meetings add real value to the client.
From Meetings to Gatherings - shift your mindset from meetings to gatherings. Not every session in your diary needs to be seen as ‘another meeting’, but some might simply be spending some time with the folks you’re working with to catchup, to socialise and just sit together virtually. You can make a call on whether you need to attend these more social gatherings if you’re not planning on being part of the team for a longer period of time, or if its an essential part of how you work and build rapport with your clients.
Giving, Guiding, Listening - try and balance out your day across gatherings where you’re giving (putting a lot of your own energy in to the meeting, perhaps you’re presenting or creating new ideas), guiding (perhaps you’re facilitating the meeting or providing feedback for others) or listening (perhaps you’re attending to learn or gather some new information). They all take different types of energy and attention, and too much of one type (especially giving) will exhaust you. If you’re not giving, guiding or listening - is attendance critical, or can you get a write up of the summary afterwards?
Don’t forget purpose - As long as its clear why you’ve got the session in your diary - and that it’s adding value to you, or you’re adding value to it - it’ll feel less frustrating. Make sure everyone is agreed what the aim for the session is, and how you’re going to structure the session to hit that purpose. If it’s not clear - you can always challenge the reason for the meeting - often, everyone else might appreciate this too, as time back in the diary is almost always welcomed.
Add time for humanity - Right now, as we aren’t bumping into people in the corridors of workspaces, lots of meeting time might be taken up with the “how are you?” at the start, especially for groups of people who don’t work together on a regular basis. This is an essential part of feeling connected and staying supported, so don’t rush this away, but do make sure you’re allowing extra time for it - so you aren’t feeling rushed.
Don’t run too long or late - online meetings are not the same as face to face meetings. It’s entirely possible to have a day-long workshop when you’re physically together, an eight hour video call is not possible or sensible. Consider how you can break your gatherings into shorter sessions, don’t keep the default hour or 30 minute mindset, but aim for shorter bursts where you come together with a purpose in mind, and then allow for some asynchronous work to take place between gatherings, perhaps in smaller groups. Also, having meetings late in the day, because that’s when people are available, can cause problems. Consider who you’re inviting, what else they might have happening at home, and energy levels towards the end of the day.
Don’t go back to back - make sure you’re creating space and time in your own schedule to have gaps between meetings where you can take a breath, and switch between the two different sessions. Get up, walk around, get some fresh air or have a drink. 
Don’t just do work - especially important for remote and self-employed workers is to make sure that your gatherings are not just all transactional and work focused. Create time in your diary for catching up with your support network, other freelancers and work buddies, and those moments where you’re just having a cup of tea with others. The small micro-interactions we’ve lost by working from home are really beneficial in creating a sense of connection and combatting isolation.
But do some work too - blocking out your own schedule for when meetings and gatherings can’t go in the diary is important to. Yes, the client might need an update, yes the team might be able to meet at a certain time, but ultimately you’re in control of how you work and designing working well for you - make sure you don’t feel pressured into attending meetings at times where you know you want to have your head down and focused, and set the agenda. You’re the one delivering the work, so make sure you’re designing a day that works to deliver the best possible work for your client.

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