The Metastasizing Zoom Meeting

Why near-universal remote work is translating into an unsustainable proliferation of virtual meetings.

October 28, 2020

Nobody planned to spend their days in Zoom meetings. Ask most people, and they would say that endless back-to-back virtual meetings are an energy drain and a productivity killer.

And yet, here we are. The shift to universal remote work seems to be correlated with a metastasis of Zoom meetings. Yes, virtual meetings are growing like uncontrolled cancer cells, spreading out across the body of our days, making it difficult to get any work done.

Why is this so? Is there something about universal remote work that is an accelerant of meeting culture? Is this phenomenon unique to higher ed, or does it occur across other knowledge industries?

First, some enterprising social scientist somewhere should nail down if we all are having more meetings. My sample size is admittedly too small to generalize.

If we are in the middle of a COVID-19/remote work-associated avalanche of virtual meetings, how might this trend be explained?

One hypothesis is that virtual meetings are logistically simpler than face-to-face gathering. Finding rooms for meetings with more than three people can be surprisingly tricky on most campuses. A virtual meeting room may not be infinitely expandable, but it scales much easier than physical spaces.

We find ourselves in more meetings as it is easier to have more people in meetings. Norms of inclusivity are particularly strong in higher ed. Nobody wants to be left out, and few want to leave colleagues out. So we all may be defaulting to inviting more people to meetings than we usually would.

Relatedly, virtual meetings carry less friction in terms of travel time. We can book back-to-back-to-back Zoom meetings or accept meeting invitations because we are not physically trying to get someplace else. Every meeting occurs where we already are, in front of our laptop.

COVID-19 and the shift to near-universal remote work may also be increasing the frequency and depth of cross-institutional collaborations. We can now meet with colleagues at another university as easily as we once met with those on campus. Greater cross-institutional collaboration means more meetings.

Left unchecked, Zoom meetings will follow the same time and soul-sucking path as email. Taking the friction and time lag out of communications causes an increase in quantity, but not necessarily in quality.

When mail was physical, and hence more costly and time-intensive, we took more care with what we wrote. When meetings are virtual, we might spend less care and time thinking about who should attend and what will occur.

The solution to entire days taken up on Zoom is likely to involve a willingness of all of us to actively block off nonmeeting times. I’ve taken to scheduling time in my Outlook calendar for “working,” which really means no Zoom meetings.

The problem is that blocking out non-Zoom time will not work if not everyone is utilizing the campus calendaring system. (Many faculty don’t.) Or if meetings are cross-institutional (as free/busy is still challenging to determine across organizations).

Scheduling in "Zoom-free" times may help. But unless we have a conversation about Zoom proliferation costs, then the problem will only worsen.

How much of your day today will you spend in virtual meetings?


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