Research Shows Unexpected Benefit of COVID-19: Better Meetings

Maggie Aland

Since the majority of us started working from home, there have been key shifts in the way we conduct meetings. And a lot of these changes have been surprisingly positive. This is welcome news considering there have been very few good things to come out of 2020 (unless you’re counting the number of times we’ve been able to rewatch The Office).

We break down the most recent data to highlight how the nature of meetings has shifted in the past year, and what it means for us in the future. 

We’re spending less (total) time in meetings.

This may seem counterintuitive at first. You may have seen more meetings hit your calendar when you first started working from home. Additional one-on-ones, team huddles, check-ins — the list goes on. 

You’re not alone. Recent data from the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) analyzed more than 3 million people over 4 months and found that the number of meetings per person is up 12.9%. 

And, according to a study by Microsoft, 7 out of 10 employees saw an increase in the number of meetings they had. 

However, NBER also found that the length of meetings is down 20.1%, which means the net effect is people are spending less time in meetings per day (-11.5%) after lockdown.

With less time spent in meetings, we were able to spend more time getting work done.

Will this decrease in total meeting time continue into the future? Based on the next data point, we hypothesize yes. 

There’s been an increase in the quantity of 30-minute meetings.

Since the lockdown, there has been an organic shift from hour-long meetings to 30-minute meetings. This was not mandated or prescribed. People naturally started scheduling shorter meetings. According to Microsoft Workplace Insights, short meetings increased by 22%, while long meetings decreased by 11%.

Source: Microsoft Workplace Insights

This shift to shorter meetings can be explained by the following reasons: 

People want to be considerate

Working from home means more meetings as people can no longer get information via hallway chats or quick taps on the shoulder.

The feeling of meeting overload led people to be cautious with scheduling, to avoid double bookings and overcrowded calendars.

“The issue of virtual meeting fatigue (real or perceived) had managers more cognizant of how long meetings were taking.“ –Paul Axtell, Author of Meetings Matter

Microsoft analysts agree, theorizing, “People were responding to the added [meeting] demands by being more conservative and efficiency-oriented when scheduling other people’s time.”

This will likely continue even after many people start returning to the office. According to Peter Bregman in the Harvard Business Review, 30-minute meetings are just as, if not more effective than hour-long meetings. 

It’s harder to stay engaged in a long virtual meeting

We’ve all heard the theory that our attention spans are shortening.

But how does our engagement change when we’re in a video call versus an in-person meeting? According to a study on virtual meetings by Professor Christina Wasson, employees find it harder to stay engaged in long virtual meetings compared to in-person meetings.

In a virtual meeting, people are more tempted to multitask than when we’re in a physical conference room. You can make a snack, let the dog out, answer the door, or respond to a question from your kid. 

Therefore, the shift to shorter meetings may be due to the increased difficulty of staying focused with many distractions going on at home.

There’s a COVID-19 related strain on attention spans

According to a study by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), stress negatively impacts your ability to pay attention for long periods. 

During the stay-at-home order, there has been no shortage of stressors, so it makes sense that people are leaning toward 30-minute meetings as opposed to booking 60-minute time blocks. We’re all feeling the strain and appreciate the shorter meeting length.

While the added strain will hopefully lift in the coming months, we believe the decrease in meeting times will remain. People will notice that their shorter meetings were effective, and start considering 30-minutes as the new normal.

We realized we don’t need to meet in person.

Before COVID-19, many people felt that meeting in person was necessary to get work done. 

In fact, in Doodle’s 2019 State of Meetings report, they concluded that meeting face-to-face is vital, with 76% of their respondents saying face-to-face is the preferred meeting method. 

One-hundred percent of the 6,500 participants agreed meeting in person helped them better understand people’s arguments and opinions.

Fast forward a year and COVID-19 has forced us into an experiment where most of us are no longer meeting in person. What did we find? We were able to make key decisions, collaborate, and foster relationships strictly through video meetings.

“My recent data suggest that virtual meeting effectiveness is up from pre-covid levels. People are getting better and better at leading these types of meetings. I do believe people miss the quick interpersonal interactions before the meeting and immediately after the meeting where they can just connect with their colleagues, but from a sheer effectiveness perspective, things are looking up for virtual meetings.” –Dr. Stephen Rogelberg, Author of The Surprising Science of Meetings

We’ve been able to improve our virtual meeting skills, which means meeting on screen is just as effective as meeting in person. This will lead to more flexible work from home options in the future.

It’s harder for people to contribute in a virtual meeting.

Not all of the changes are positive.

We still need to work on enabling greater participation from all meeting attendees. This is especially true for larger meetings.

“In the physical world, effective communication during team meetings needs alignment of ‘content’, ‘tone’, and ‘body language’. However, in the virtual world, these elements are constrained by the limitations of the technological platform. Hence, it’s harder for people to speak up during meetings. In its absence, diverse views are harder to accumulate from the members. And especially for contentious issues, people do not feel comfortable to share these diverse views over a technological platform.” –Dr. Sankalp Chaturvedi, Imperial College London

The good news is there are proven ways to increase participation in virtual meetings:

  • Demonstrate the problem (or opportunity) in the first 60 seconds
  • Give people the chance to participate
    • Split up into breakout groups, and give each group a problem to solve
    • Ask people to share what was discussed in the breakout session
  • Use as few slides as possible to get your point across
  • Never go longer than 5 minutes without giving the attendees a task

What does all of this mean for the future of meetings?

Only time will tell what the long-lasting impact of COVID-19 will be for meetings. We hypothesize that meeting length will remain shorter, virtual meetings will become even more effective, and we’ll have more flexibility to take meetings remotely. And if that’s the case, then there will be at least one good thing to come out of all this: the improvement of meeting culture.

About the author
Maggie Aland

Maggie is the Senior Director of Go-to Market at Chili Piper. She graduated with a B.S. in Psychology from Tulane University, and has been published in Investopedia, Fundera, and Fit Small Business among others.

With seven years of experience in digital marketing, her primary goal is to create the most helpful resources for growth marketers. Her secondary goal is to get Taylor Swift to agree to a content collaboration.

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