This week, Microsoft published the results of a new study on the effect of back-to-back meetings. Since the start of the pandemic, video call fatigue has been a reality for knowledge workers. Microsoft’s Human Factors Lab attempted to put some science behind the feeling. Researchers from the lab, which examines how humans interact with technology, asked 14 people to participate in video meetings while wearing electroencephalogram (EEG) equipment—a cap to monitor the electrical activity in their brains.
The 14 volunteers each participated in two different sessions of meetings. On one day, they attended stretches of four half-hour meetings back-to-back, with each call devoted to various tasks. On another day, the four half-hour meetings were separated by10-minute breaks during which the participants meditated.
The sessions took place on two consecutive Mondays; some participants started with back-to-backs while the others had breaks between meetings and the following week, they switched. Additional people joined the meetings as well in an attempt to recreate a real-life experience.
The results of the study provided three key takeaways:
Breaks between meetings allow the brain to “reset,” reducing a cumulative buildup of stress across meetings
As demonstrated in other studies, the researchers found that two straight hours of meetings result in cumulative stress. When participants were allowed to meditate, the brain had enough time to reset, avoiding the buildup of stress.
Illustration by Brown Bird Design - Brain activity when having meetings without and with breaks
ILLUSTRATION BY BROWN BIRD DESIGN - MICROSOFT
Back-to-back meetings can decrease your ability to focus and engage
When participants had meditation breaks, brainwave patterns showed positive levels of frontal alpha asymmetry, which correlates to higher engagement. Without breaks, the levels were negative, suggesting participants’ lower level of engagement.
Transitioning between meetings can be a source of high stress.
Going from meeting to meeting increased the level of stress in participants. People who took meditation breaks, so their beta waves drop and then start back up when a new meeting was starting.
What is fascinating about the study is that the meetings were all simulated. This means that participants were unlikely to feel personally invested in the meeting as they would in an actual work situation. This means that in a real-life case, those results would likely be even more extreme.
Change in Practices and Culture
Over the past year, Microsoft has been working on improving its Microsoft Teams solution to make virtual meetings more natural, engaging, and less tiring. This latest research influenced some changes to Outlook that now allows individuals or organizations to set defaults that take five, 10, or 15 minutes off Microsoft Teams meetings so that participants have time to have a moment in between.
It takes a second to get used to it, but I have been getting invites to more and more meetings that start on the hour and end 25 or 50 minutes after. I have also had meetings start five or ten minutes after the hour or half an hour. Being able to embed these options in your scheduling tool makes things much easier. It sends a powerful message to the employees that they are empowered to make those changes that positively impact their mental well-being.
Even if many will return to work in an office environment, there is no denying that the way we work has been changed forever and, with it, the time we spend in virtual meetings. Employee well-being is a big topic of discussion and one that I sure want to see remain a priority for employers and solution providers such as Microsoft, Cisco, and Google.
Yet, technology alone is not going to solve all our problems. Whether you believe in meditation and are planning to take advantage of the Headspace integration with Microsoft Teams or are thinking about using other tools, it is crucial to understand that those breaks in between meetings must be breaks. Doing emails, or sneaking in a quick phone call, or any other work-related task will not achieve the results that the Microsoft’s study is highlighting. The same can be said about other trends such as “no meeting Friday.” Initiatives like this only work if the rest of the week is not negatively impacted because we have no meetings on a Friday.
So, as it is often the case, let’s use data to make informed decisions, technology to empower us to work more effectively and leadership to guide us towards a more thoughtful working environment.
Not every exchange has to be a meeting, not all meetings have to be 30 minutes or an hour... Most of all, shift mindset from working more to working better. Part of this conversation has to be tied to how we measure and reward employees going forward, which is a critical component of the future of work. Being busy does not necessarily mean being productive. The data clearly points to the opposite. Technology can continue to help us streamline workflows, prioritize time, stay connected. Still, ultimately, it will be leaders who make sure fear of missing out on opportunities will not have us fall back to our old ways of thinking that office work is more productive than remote work, more meetings make us more productive, and replying to emails at the weekend and on holidays make us more engaged.