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The pain of the endless check-in of work



Brenda Fernandez has tried to block the time in the calendar. She has tried to keep the conversations focused. She still can not escape them.

“Everything becomes a meeting,” said the 29-year-old copywriter in Miami. Her overwhelming feeling? “This may have been an email.”

Then she apologized for jumping on a 19-call.

We are deep inside the endless check-in. Meetings have become shorter during the pandemic, according to researchers, with a paper that found the average length fell 20% in the spring of 2020.

But meetings multiply. It is the 25-minute touch base for the client, the general acquisition of your manager, the bite-sized feedback session, the meeting to prepare the meeting.

“It just never ends,”

; Fernandez said.

We were already on our way to facing burnout before the pandemic. A shift from hierarchical organizations to layered, matrixed, means more managers and teams to coordinate with. Increasingly global business means invitations at times when we would normally be in bed. Caroline Kim Oh, a leadership coach based near New York City, says that in recent years, many of her clients have begun to feel that meetings are just something that happens to them.

“You have no control over your workday,” she says. “They just show up.”

Working from home and living through a crisis seems to have made it worse. In an April survey from the Doodle meeting scheduling tool, 69% of 1,000 full-time full-time employees said their meetings had increased since the pandemic began, with 56% reporting that their flooded calendars hurt job performance.

Constant check-in has become some boss version of micromanaging, a way to keep track of workers they do not trust. Coordination that used to happen by swinging the chair or walking across the hallway now requires extra formality and time for everyone who is still scattered across the home office. In addition, there is the feeling that empathetic leaders should stay in touch during moments of transition, whether it is as the world was shut down last year, or when we return to headquarters now.

The message to managers is often: “Hi, check in with your employees. See if they are okay. Care more, says Mrs. Kim Oh, the leader. Sometimes more care means more to save an employee from another zoom, she adds.

What happens afterwards? If we all go back to work five days a week, we can get back to the effective, personal check-in, says Raffaella Sadun, a professor at Harvard Business School who has studied meeting load before and during the pandemic. But organizations testing a hybrid setup should be a mess.

There are now two types of interactions to manage, says Dr. Sadun. “One is at the water cooler, one is at Zoom.” If you make a decision with your colleague sitting at a desk, you still need to call your teammate who spends Tuesdays at home to make sure she’s on board. Suddenly the whole Zoom does not seem so bad all the time.

Nevertheless, many employees are optimistic that things will get better. In the Doodle survey, 70% of respondents said they hope to have fewer meetings when they return to the office. Angela Nguyen, an independent health consultant in Boston, predicts that workers will return to the good old days with back-to-back meetings, as opposed to the double- and triple-booked routes she sees now.

Indoor dining, training classes, concerts. These once common events come back in the daily. But because of the Covid-19, everyone now has a different level of comfort. What happens in the brain when we decide what is risky or not? Photo illustration: Laura Kammermann

“It’s not sustainable,” she says. She has seen clients try to share and conquer, jump in 15-minute commos or send different team members to different video calls. Then they are synchronized after – with a new meeting.

Were we just used to having our professional contacts a click away all these months, with no travel time or personal plans as a natural limit? Does loneliness play a role?

“I wonder if people just want to connect, just to chat, because they do not have an office to go to,” Ms Nguyen said.

In total, employees have put in five to eight extra hours a week during the pandemic, said Rob Cross, professor of global management at Babson College and author of the upcoming book “Beyond Collaboration Overload.” More meetings means more tasks to catch up on at the end of the day, when we finally have a moment to take a look at our balloon-to-do lists. In addition, there are very treasures on our brain to alternate between more, shorter meetings.

“They have created work that they do not see,” says Dr. Cross of organizations. “It crushes people.”

SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS

What meetings from home would you like to end, or continue, when you return to the office? Join the conversation below.

Becca Apfelstad’s team at the marketing agency Treetree returned to Columbus, Ohio, office last month for two and a half days a week. The CEO’s verdict at the meetings is: They are not worse than before. Early in the pandemic, workers complained that they did not have time to take water or use the bathroom. “It was as if we would not survive if we could not find out,” she says.

The company moved some communication to messaging services like Slack, trimmed meetings to 20 or 50 minutes and encouraged walk-and-talk conversations by using AI services to take notes.

The effort helped, says Mrs. Apfelstadt, and so far the switch to hybrid has not created any meeting insects. Still, there has been hiccups. The second week, she discovered that three employees were sitting together on a sofa trying to share a portable camera for a video conference.

“They only had a small person in the middle, and she was just dirty whenever anyone wanted to try to do something,” says Apfelstadt. She advises companies to keep the formal meeting schedule light when they go back and lean into serendipitous conversations around the office.

However, not everyone wants them. Seanna Thompson, a physician and administrator at New York’s Mount Sinai Health System, has loved her external meetings over the past plus year. The fear comes when she thinks of returning to the ad-hoc, meandering check-in of the water cooler.

“I’m like, my God, who just tracked down my whole day,” she says. “I do not think what we did before was so effective.”

Write to Rachel Feintzeig at rachel.feintzeig@wsj.com

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