It’s Monday, the start of the week @ 16:30 CET. The engineer rubbed his head “Now to my 11th meeting for the day. One of those was with Barry (his boss) where I complained I have too many meetings” he said with an ironic smile. What company is this? One of the many hundreds where this happens day in and day out during lockdown.

Too many emails, too many meetings

A team I was working with in a Biotech company, spent an average of 75% of their time in meetings, with the team leader spending 90% of his time in meetings. At a major bank, a leader of a division said she received between 180 to 250 emails a day. Spending the day in an all-day workshop was a nightmare as she knew that evening was going to be spent answering emails.
So, when does the real work get done? Evenings and weekends. Cutting directly into personal time; the time people need to relax, unwind, exercise, look after their family so that they are mentally alert for the next day.
How many meetings do you have a day? How many emails? Have they increased since COVID?

Collaborative Overload + Digital Overload = COVID burnout

During COVID the meetings and emails have exploded. What would be a 5-minute exchange at the desk is now a 30-minute full on Zoom call. What could be a friendly banter in the kitchen is now a flurry of WhatsApp’s while you are on a video call (with the camera off).
Collaborative overload is not new. Digital overload is not new. What is new is both added together, and they are leading to burnout.
Collaborative work has increased by 50% over the last 20 years according to data that Professor Rob Cross has been collecting. More teamwork, easier connectivity, less silos. And all that is a good thing. However, Cross’ research shows that value-added collaboration often comes from a small group of super networked, helpful people, quickly leaving them burnt out.
Digital overload has increased as people want to continue connecting virtually as physical connection is not an option during the pandemic. The coffee chat becomes the weekly team virtual coffee, twice as long and half the fun. Zoom fatigue is real. Humans are intensely social animals, and so we are primed to watch body language and read facial expression modifying what we are saying based on these signals. Now the screen is a big filter requiring much more of our attention. Along with the anxiety of your home office being suddenly on show, it is mentally much more taxing.
Added together, collaborative overload plus digital overload equals burnout and mental health issues at higher rates than any other time in recent history. In the USA there has been a 31% and UK a 9% increase in mental health issues due to the pandemic.

Reclaim time reduce burnout

People feel motivated and engaged when they achieve something – solve a problem, finish a report, deliver a great presentation. Not sitting in a meeting and answering emails. Find ways that the people have time to do “real work” during working hours. Four ways to do this are:

    1. Review and reduce recurring meetings: Meetings can become habits so easily and maybe people do not even remember what the purpose of the meeting was it has become part of the culture. Eliminate any that do not make sense and reduce all others by 20-25% of the time.
    2. Give permission to say “no” – most people hate to say no. So, they stay in meetings where they are not adding value, accept a meeting invitation even though it is not relevant, or put up with a badly run meeting which is way off track. Change the norms and give people permission to decline meetings, leave meetings where they are not needed, and challenge badly run meetings.
    3. Value time like money – Time is a precious resource and wasted time cannot be won back. You would not allow employees to steal company property, but you probably allow them to steal other people’s time. While we do not see immediate financial impact, it comes later in the form of burnt out and disengaged employees.
    4. Teach people how to use technology efficiently– technology is only as effective as the weakest link in the team. If just one person can’t save their documents to the shared drive or effectively the jamboard, then the whole team loses the benefits. It is not just about good tech, but having the whole team being capable of using it well.

While these four ideas are simple, they are not easy. Implementation requires challenging beliefs, altering behaviour, and establishing new ways of working. Creating an organisation where people have time to perform at work and manage their wellbeing will improve productivity. It would allow our overloaded engineer some time to do his analysis and design work instead of being in meetings all day.

This article appeared in the CollabMagazine in April 2021

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