Videoconferencing has become vexatious.The major complaint of people forced into Remote Working by pandemic lockdowns is the pressure of participating in back-to-back videoconferencing calls. Tools for videoconferencing such as Teams, Zoom, Google Hangouts etc. are cheap and easy-to-use. However just because something is easy to do, such as constantly checking messages on our phones, it doesn’t mean we should do it.
Employees feel pressured by being on camera for a large part of the day, along with the interior of their house and sometimes their children and pets. Some people deal with this by switching off their camera but then colleagues may complain that participants are not fully engaged and are being impolite. There is also a productivity impact. If you are continually participating in virtual meetings then there is no time for other job tasks to be completed with the risk of rushed, unfinished work and missed deadlines adding further stressful pressures.
Employer-led initiatives on Virtual Meetings
According to State of Remote Work 2020 report, videoconferencing technology has become the standard form of communication with 60% of respondents using video more than before COVID-19. However70% agree that there should be a day each week without video meetings. One employer that has taken this route, for the good of their staff’s mental health, is the UK broadcaster Channel 4. It has introduced an enforced lunch break every day, when no meetings or calls are allowed, and also has meeting free Fridays.
It is interesting how working practices come around again. At a very early stage in my career I would enjoy a mandatory daily mid-morning coffee break when the whole company would stop work. Staff were encouraged to chat with colleagues over coffee and cakes. (Before I joined there had also been afternoon tea break). However this approach fell out favour as it was regarded as old fashioned and engendered negative associations with productivity.
There is a counter argument to these imposed behaviours. Remote Working is one component of a wider way of working called Agile Working, or Smart Working. Its tenet is to give employees choices in how, when and where they work within the limitations of the job role. Enforced lunch breaks could be thought of as the antithesis of Flexible Working, even regarded as paternalistic. Some employees do not ‘do lunch ‘ or would prefer take a short lunch break and choose the time saved for other purposes such as spending time with their children when they come back from school. They may regard this as a better option for their work-life balance.
A consensual approach to the use of Videoconferencing
A better approach may be a more consensual one, with agreements between managers and employees, and between the employees themselves, on some protocols and ground rules on the conduct of meetings. For example, rather than the meeting convener populating empty spaces in people’s calendars with meeting invites: the meeting should only take place once the recipient has actively accepted the invitation. People would be encouraged to take breaks to avoid back-to-back meetings so it would be quite acceptable for them to decline a meeting invitation and propose an alternative time that suits them better.
Where back-to-back meetings are unavoidable, another rule could be to impose a cut off after 45 minutes so that everyone has a 15 minute break to stretch their legs and take their eyes away from their screen befor their next meeting. A protocol to support shorter meetings is for people to consent to limit their contributions to no more than an agreed number of minutes to avoid rambling conversations. Of course, it shouldn’t mean that people just speak more quickly, rather that they keep to the point they want to make. However, the overall time limit should not preclude some social conversation, otherwise the meetings risk becoming quite turgid.
If this fails, it is still important that employees take control of their calendars. Setting up meetings with yourself to ensure that you have time finish a report and time to think through new ideas are legitimate contributions to your personal productivity. It should also be permissable for people to challenge the need for a meeting. Meetings can be good for gaining consensus but they can also be an excuse for not making a decision. And of course, other means of communication are still available; often a phone call between two people is quicker and more relaxed encounter than a video call, and is even easier to set up.
John Eary, Director of JEC Professional Services Ltd. which helps organisations become more resilient through Agile Working, Business Continuity and the Digital Workplace. John seeks to provoke new thinking on the opportunities and challenges for new ways of working presented by technology. He has assisted over 40 organisations to adopt new ways of working. John is the author of a new book, Agile Working and the Digital Workspace published by Business Expert Press