Six ways to make more time in a virtual world

At the start of the pandemic, commuting disappeared along with the traditional office and it seemed Covid had gifted us extra time. But it was only a matter of weeks before Zoom took over…

by Dustin Seale, partner, Heidrick & Struggles
Last Updated: 01 Sep 2021

Thanks to lockdown and shifts in working practice writes Dustin Seale, pictured right, we’re all spending much more time in virtual meetings. But are we really being more productive? We’re also working longer, implying that at least some of that Zoom time could be better spent. Here are five tips to help you and your organisation get more efficient with your remote work:

1. Is a Meeting Even Necessary?
A Zoom meeting is just one of many tools in the digital communication toolbox but it’s far from the only one. Often, we default to a meeting as it’s what we would have done in the office. But in the digital environment, there may be quicker and easier ways.

If the meeting is purely to relay information between parties, stick with email and requests to follow up in case of issues. Similarly, project updates can often be collected and collated offline rather than in a meeting. Short, quick decisions could be decided via polls

2. Limit the Numbers
Even before the pandemic, research showed the most effective meetings have fewer than eight participants: people are less willing to have an open discussion in big groups; the depth of conversation is necessarily limited from having so many contributors.

Issues like these are magnified on Zoom. It’s too easy for people to disengage, and the meeting loses its value. For meetings to achieve an outcome, always keep participants to seven or fewer – leading to our next point.

3. Purpose and participation v presence
Every single meeting should have a purpose. Even regular team huddles should have a standing agenda with the aim of achieving something by the end. The purpose and agenda should appear in the meeting request, and it should dictate the participant list, with the overall goal of keeping the numbers under seven.

Participation is also another key term, different from mere presence. By limiting the invite list to those who are required to participate and not just be present, the meeting becomes an exercise in active engagement, not passive attendance.

4. Don’t underestimate the power of micro-breaks
Even when you do have a busy day of meetings, try to resist the pull of back-to-back Zoom sessions – for the sake of your productivity. A recent study by researchers at North Carolina State University found that employees who took micro-breaks throughout the day showed higher levels of engagement and performance than those who didn’t.

Many of us fall into the trap of scheduling meetings in 30-minute increments. Why? Because the calendar settings on our calendar apps default to these settings. Shave five or 10 minutes off the start of each meeting and give your invitees a chance for a micro-break before you get started. Then they’ll show up to your session feeling a bit brighter and energised.

5. Being busy v being productive
The meeting trap means we’re always busy. But being in back-to-back meetings doesn’t necessarily mean being productive – in fact, it can mean the opposite. Nine out of 10 people are multitasking during meetings, with 69% admitting they check emails during meetings and half saying they’re doing other, unrelated work.

If we had enough time between meetings to think, do, reflect, and connect, then we wouldn’t need to multitask in meetings. We could show up to fewer meetings, fully prepared and ready to participate without the weight of our to-do lists weighing down on us.

6. Be there, be fully present
In the end, if you’ve chosen to be in a meeting, be there. The most positive impact on people’s perceived value of time spent comes down to whether they felt the leader was truly present and engaged. Being half anywhere is dispiriting for you and your team.

If you have no choice but to be in the meeting, take the time to shift gears in your mind and be fully present with the people on and the topic of the call. It makes a huge and lasting difference. 

Heidrick & Struggles is a leading provider of senior-level executive search, culture shaping, and leadership consulting services. Head here for more information.

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