So far, remote work during the COVID-19 pandemic has brought about more meetings — about 13% more. Our experience has also shown that those meetings have been more draining, and most of us are familiar with the specific challenges of virtual meetings (nicknamed "Zoom fatigue"). While the number and format of meetings has gotten a lot of attention, the interaction across meetings has often been overlooked.
Clustering meetings together during the workday ("batching meetings") has been widely considered to be a best practice among time-management experts, with the intention of leaving larger continuous blocks of individual focus time to accomplish important tasks. After all, having meetings scattered throughout the day may leave remaining time blocks too short to get individual work done. Studies confirm that people get fewer tasks completed when faced with an upcoming meeting.
However, in a remote work environment, there are also limits to our back-to-back meeting effectiveness, as we no longer experience the "mental breaks" between meetings the way we used to because remote work typically eliminates the walk to a different room, the change of venue, or the hallway conversation between meetings. One of my earlier blogs quoted Satya Nadella on the topic of transitions between meetings.
“When people say you’re working from home, it feels sometimes like you’re sleeping at work. And so the real challenge is, if that is the case, how do you have the transition?” he said. “In some sense it requires even more attention personally to your schedule so that you really do book in those moments of transition.”
— Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, at the WSJ CEO Council Summit
Therefore, there is a yin and yang associated with how we organize our calendars for peak effectiveness. We need to balance the clustering of meetings in the workday with appropriate transition times to maintain focus. In school, we handled back-to-back classes through a schedule of set transition times between the end of one class and the beginning of another. The same may apply to virtual meetings in a professional context as well.
While most meetings are scheduled to be an hour in length, we recommend scheduling 48-minute meetings, rather than full hour meetings, to mitigate potential energy drains.
Don’t take an hour. The Yerkes–Dodson law, which maps the inverted-Ushaped relationship between stress and performance, is well established in psychological research and holds that performance is optimal with some moderate level of pressure. To achieve that in meetings, carefully consider how long you need—and then dial it back a bit. Try a 48-minute rule in place of an hour, for example, to create focused, efficient discussion.
— Steven Rogelberg, Chancellor's Professor, at UNC Charlotte in The Wall Street Journal
By reducing your scheduled meeting duration, you can build in breaks or transitions, even when you have batched your meetings in back-to-back hours. Similarly, you can recommend to organizers of meetings that they adjust meeting start and end times to give all their meeting participants a chance to bring their whole selves to the meeting. Research shows that the shortening the meetings may also create a more focused and efficient discussion.
If your organization uses Google Calendar, there's a built-in feature available to set Speedy Meetings to automatically end meetings up to 10 minutes earlier.
Similarly, if your organization uses Microsoft Outlook 365 Calendar, there is a corresponding feature to End Meetings Early which similarly enables you to configure breaks automatically.
For recurring back-to-back meetings you can't change or influence, you can also try to defensively "time box" your breaks by scheduling personal appointments around consecutive meeting blocks. These planned breaks prevent others from adding other meetings around your back-to-back meeting blocks.
To optimize your planned breaks, we recommend that you take the time to regain focus rather than immediately turning back to your email or Slack.
There is an important balance between batching meetings and managing transitions. We recommend you try shorter meetings or planned breaks through time boxing. Let us know how it goes!