Brain Research Confirms Stupidity Of Back-to-Back Meetings
Most people have way too many meetings at work. This sucks. And it's frustrating. Brain research now confirms what we have all experienced: back-to-back meetings are stupid.
Back when everyone worked in offices, we knew meetings sucked. For now, at least, the pandemic relieves us of going to the office all the time.
However, it hasn't relieved us of poor ways of working. Most companies have taken all the bad stuff from office work, moved it online, and called it 'remote work'. That's not only frustrating, it's stupid.
What the research says
A recent study by Microsoft’s Human Factors Lab "sought to find a solution for meeting fatigue—a pressing concern in our new era of remote and hybrid work".
(A bit naive to think this has just become a problem, but hey, let's give them a break.)
This study involved volunteers wearing electroencephalogram (EEG) equipment to monitor electrical activity in their brains. Each participated in two different sessions of meetings.
"On one day they attended stretches of four half-hour meetings back-to-back, each devoted to different tasks—like designing an office layout, or creating a marketing plan. On another, the four half-hour meetings were interspersed with 10-minute breaks. Instead of jumping sraight from one meeting to the next, participants meditated with the Headspace app during the breaks."
The research showed three main takeaways.
1. Breaks help to reset the brain
With back-to-back meetings stress kept accumulating. The average activity of beta waves—those associated with stress—increased over time.
However, when taking a break between meetings to meditate, beta activity dropped significantly. This 'reset' led to participants being more relaxed when the next meeting started. Plus, there was no buildup of stress over the four video calls.
Useful, but not very surprising. A simple solution to stress and meeting overload? Take short breaks between your video calls.
2. Breaks increase focus and engagement
"When participants had meditation breaks, brainwave patterns showed positive levels of frontal alpha asymmetry. This correlates with higher engagement during the meeting. Without breaks, the levels were negative, suggesting participants were withdrawn, or less engaged in the meeting."
Breaks don't only alleviate stress, they also help us stay focused and engaged.
3. Breaks help in transitioning
"For the participants deprived of breaks, researchers also noticed that the transition period between calls caused beta activity, or stress levels, to spike. For those participants, beta wave activity jumped again when new check ins started."
"Taking breaks not only prevents those spikes but causes a dip in beta activity—which correlates with less stress."
Conclusion: Breaks help make the transitions between meetings less stressful.
Shift your mindset
While this study is useful, its findings don't surprise. They simply confirm what we experience: back-to-back meetings suck, and lead to stress, fatigue and disengagement.
The bigger problem? Even though we all feel this, not much changes. Maybe deep down we doubt these feelings. Maybe we still feel (hope?) that having back-to-back meetings is the best thing to do. That is, you just need to overcome fatigue and stress, and toughen up to plow through your workday.
Most companies have taken all the bad stuff from office work, moved it online, and called it 'remote work'. That's not only frustrating, it's stupid.
The study once again shows you it's not. So let's break the taboo of declining meetings. Stop feeling ashamed when you tell colleagues, "I'll skip this meeting because I want to be more productive and less stressed."
The concluding remarks of the study are perhaps the most important: "Shift your mindset. While it might feel more productive to power through back-to-backs, research shows the opposite is true. View breaks away from your computer as an essential part of your workday."
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I've been feeling this, without having the science to back it up. I created a simple way to help combat this problem - https://www.firstfiveminutes.club/
Just scheduling shorter meetings doesn't work if someone then scheduled a new meeting into the 5-minute gap! Instead, keep the meeting at full length, but start 5 minutes late.
I shared this article on my linkedIn and I'd like to share ideas that emerged during discussions in the comments.
I remembered the habit of a manager in one of my previous enterprises: he would decline any meeting during more than 45 min. So I proposed to plan 45-minute meetings, with 15 minutes of transition in between. During these 15 minutes, people would meditate, and then rapidly check their email, so that they can be fully attentive during the next meeting (by turning off notifications).
Someone pointed out that planning tools are tailored meeting durations multiple of 30 minutes.
So I proposed to plan 1-hour meetings, whose 15 last minutes would be collectively used as a transition (meditation + mail).
The same guy told be : "OK, but important people usually join meetings 15 or 20 minutes late. So they won't agree to 'waste' 15 minutes at the end of the meeting". I don't know if it's the same elsewhere, but in France, meetings rarely begin on time, and latecomers are mostly bosses (the higher their position, the longer the lateness).
So here's what I proposed to reply to such reluctances : "OK. Next time, we will begin with transition time. It will give you the time to be late."
What do you think ?
Some of CxO leaders, I have provided consulting always ensured that their calendars had no more than three meetings in a day. Max of 4 meeting and never exceeding 5hours of overall duration per day. Exception days were very very few. They empowered their teams more. Similarly I have seen with some of my partner -vendors owners also practicing this.
How are work outcomes affected by the treatment of those who do it? I have been exploring this question for ~50 years. In that time, one comment stuck with me more than any other. It was made in 1998 when I interviewed a group of men in Indianapolis who had redesigned most of the US city’s waste collection and disposal operations. “We are no longer expected to park our brains at the door when we come to work.”
Today, we're launching the official Corporate Rebels webshop—the perfect place to order our books and merchandise. So join the workplace revolution, make a statement for better work, and look cooler than you ever have before. Oh, and you’ll also support a charity while you're at it. What's not to like?