BATTLING VIRTUAL MEETING FATIGUE
Tips for more effective and engaged online meetings
By Christopher W. Cook
As COVID case numbers ease off, in-person meetings and conferences are beginning to return. But with hybrid work schedules becoming perm-anent in the workplace, there is no sign that virtual meetings will be going away.
While we’ve become accustomed to virtual meetings in recent years, some may be getting a little tired of staring at their co-workers as if they were a modern version of The Brady Bunch. At last year’s Applied Net meeting, a session—How Smart Leaders Combat Virtual Meeting Fatigue and Create Engagement—provided tips on the topic.
Let’s face it, “virtual fatigue is awkward,” said Joseph McFadden, instructional designer with Alliant Insurance Services. “In a virtual meeting, the only way to show we’re paying attention is to look at the camera. But in real life, how often do you stand within three feet of a colleague and stare into their face for an hour or so? Probably never. Having to engage in a constant gaze makes us uncomfortable, and frankly, it wears you out and makes you tired.”
“On a Zoom call, because we’re all sitting in different places and not in a room together, if I turn to look out the window, I worry that it might seem like I’m not paying attention,” added Jayme Moreno, Alliant Insurance Services training specialist. “Not to mention, most of us are always staring at a small window of ourselves, making us hyper aware of [our appearance] and how it might be interpreted or judged by the other people on the call.”
Add to this the performance anxiety involving virtual backgrounds, available equipment and having the best lighting. With the pressure on team members to stay attentive, here are a few things leadership can do to have successful online meetings.
Preparing for the battle
According to McFadden, the key to battling virtual fatigue and increasing engagement is to be as prepared as possible prior to the start of the meeting. “If you as the leader are tired, distracted, and unprepared, then your meetings are going to be boring; preparation is key,” he said.
“Make sure to keep meetings as short as possible. Don’t stay in the battle after you’ve achieved your goals. Be brief, bright and be gone,” said Moreno.
Remember that while even the best meetings can get off topic, always take notes so the best ideas can be followed up on.
Along with keeping meetings short is to have as few as possible. “Each meeting should be one of three things: generate solutions, evaluate options, or update the team,” McFadden said.
“Substitute those large invite lists for smaller one-on-one or one-on-twos,” added Moreno. “It’s rare for even the best leaders to have so much info that they have to pull everyone together every day or even every week.”
“Make sure to keep meetings as short as possible. Don’t stay in the battle after you’ve achieved your goals. Be brief, bright and be gone.”
Alliant Insurance Services
Survey your team and find out how frequently they feel meetings should be held, and make sure that they are scheduled carefully and not picked for times that are inconvenient for many of the attendees. Keep time zones in mind if you have remote workers across the country.
Finally, be ready. Is the meeting’s leader prepared both physically and mentally? “Log on early and make sure you’re there to greet people as they join, just like you would for an in-person meeting,” McFadden said. “And start on time, no matter what. If you don’t start on time, you’re just encouraging people to be late and demonstrating that you aren’t as prepared as you should be.”
“If someone’s late or having technical issues, let them drop off and get themselves together, and then rejoin,” Moreno added.
Criticism and feedback should be avoided during the meeting itself and, instead should be given with a follow-up afterward. Equally important is having a meeting agenda, which should be distributed to all participants prior to the start. Team leaders should rehearse key points beforehand.
In military terminology, the phrase “take cover” means to protect oneself from attack. While combating virtual fatigue, taking cover refers to sparing your team members from a bombardment of too much information at one time.
“Leaders and meeting hosts are really tempted to use the ‘all Power-Point, all the time’ strategy of virtual meetings, but that just ends up fire-hosing the participants without giving them any time whatsoever to swallow,” McFadden said.
“Limit how much info you cover in any one meeting; that gives you less to prepare for and gives participants less to focus on,” Moreno added. “Use different ways to get your point across. Sharing documents and presentations is fine in a meeting, but you can also use tools like chats, whiteboards or even pictures—all of which make meetings more engaging and fun.”
Another important thing to remember for longer meetings is to include breaks.
“Timely breaks allow everyone to maintain good energy, focus, and most of all engagement,” McFadden said.
The two recommended that leaders should not go longer than 30 minutes without at least one three-to-five-minute content break, and no longer than 60 minutes without at least an eight-to-ten-minute bio-break.
“Be creative and generous with your breaks,” Moreno said. “The bio breaks are best when leaders encourage every-one to stand up, step away, stretch, refill beverages and walk around a bit.”
Use timers and music so participants know when to return. For the shorter content breaks, provide an opportunity for those attending to participate in icebreaker activities. Have them share information about themselves like:
- Hometown and current town
- Favorite foods or restaurants
- Names of significant others, kids and pets
- What they are currently binge watching
- Hobbies or interesting experiences
- What they are thankful for
“It’s tempting to start your meetings with an icebreaker or a content break like this, and that’s an effective strategy, but don’t forget to use these breaks whenever you need a mental pause,” McFadden said.
Incoming direct fire
Another thing that can make virtual meetings difficult is incoming direct fire(IDF), which can come in the form of interruptions, distractions and frustrations.
“All of these things require energy to cope with and can make even short meetings and simple tasks much tougher,” said Moreno. “An interrupted, distracted and frustrating meeting is a breeding ground for errors and omissions and bickering. Lack of focus makes you less effective in whatever you’re trying to do and undermines your authority as a leader.”
One form of interruption, according to McFadden, is the concept of multi-tasking, which he referred to as a myth. “Research in neuroscience tells us that the brain doesn’t really do tasks simultaneously; all we are doing is switching tasks quickly,” he said. “The bottom line, it’s less efficient, we make more mistakes, and over time it can zap our energy.”
“Frustration is draining, physically and mentally, and if your team or your participants anticipate frustration during your meeting, engagement is even more difficult to generate.”
Alliant Insurance Services
“Staying focused on one thing at a time is more engaging and productive,” added Moreno. “As a leader, you should limit or eliminate things that could interrupt you during the meeting and encourage your team to do the same.”
She recommends for those team members working from home to communicate meeting schedules with others who may be present in the household. Also, make sure your visible workplace is ready to be seen, and don’t forget about the tabs open on your computer screen. Make sure these things are done prior to the start of the meeting to minimize distractions and give yourself plenty of time to log in to the virtual platform.
To further help with avoiding distractions, feel free to turn off the chat function. If things start drifting out of control, “call for a quick break, deal with whatever it is and then reconvene; this goes for your participants, too,” Moreno said.
If distractions and interruptions proceed, it can lead to frustration, which is “that awful feeling of unmet expectations, or the inability to achieve a goal despite repeated attempts,” McFadden said. “Frustration is draining, physically and mentally, and if your team or your participants anticipate frustration during your meeting, engagement is even more difficult to generate.”
An alternative to combating virtual meeting fatigue is not to have a meeting in the first place. Instead of having a meeting, try some of the following approaches:
- “Sometimes a good email is worth 1,000 meetings,” McFadden said. “A quick email can get what you need and let some air back into everybody’s schedule.”
- “Texting is a fantastic way for a quick exchange and sharing that can help avoid meetings in general,” Moreno said. “It’s also a nice way to reach out to people and engage with them in a fun and low-pressure way.”
- “It is a great way to collaborate and stay connected,” Moreno said. “Most chat or messaging systems allow you to create channels for different routes, departments, or other teams.”
- “Sometimes, the old school is the best school, and just to hear a voice and have a one-to-one conversation is the best way to connect and share,” McFadden said.
- Snail mail. “Who doesn’t like to receive cards or letters? That is an effective way to deliver a message to almost anyone,” Moreno said. “Leaders can create a bond with their teams just by sending them something in the mail.”
- Home delivery. “It’s not a substitute for meetings, but you can use home delivery services as an add-on or combined with virtual events to make them more fun and memorable,” McFadden said. These can be used for things like lunches, parties, showers, new hires. Don’t forget about time zones for virtual meetings; while the East Coast has lunch, the West Coast could have breakfast.
In the big picture, “Taking these steps can help you and your team feel less exhausted and blue about the thought of another virtual meeting. Even using a few of these ideas can create better energy, engagement and effectiveness for you and your team,” Moreno concluded.