Five tips to prevent, overcome virtual meeting fatigue

CHIEF OF STAFF FIVE: The COVID-19 pandemic has caused major shifts in how we live our lives, including how businesses operate. The strict implementation of lockdowns in the first year forced companies to go online and implement remote work setups.


Now, companies have become more resourceful and creative in holding activities, whether physically or on-site. However, more than two years into the pandemic, carrying out day-to-day operations in a virtual setting continues to strike a challenge for organisations.

Managers face difficulties in supervising team performance from afar, while employees, who spend most, if not all, of their working hours online, suffer from burnout, dissatisfaction, and productivity loss.

The new normal led to a new turn of phrase, virtual meeting fatigue, also known as “Zoom fatigue,” named after the commonly-used video-conferencing platform. This refers to the experience of feeling overwhelmed, exhausted, and anxious over frequent calls and long online meetings.

Here are five ways to avert virtual meeting fatigue.

1. Do you really need to hold that meeting?

For starters, try not to send that calendar invite until you think about whether the agenda truly calls for a meeting or if a simple email will suffice.

Numerous studies have already pointed out that the number of hours spent on meetings skyrocketed over the past decades, generally leading to a waste of time and a decrease in employee productivity and happiness.

Harvard Business Review came up with a guide for managers to decide when, why, and how to meet. While the model was published pre-pandemic and includes the option for in-person meetings, this guide still comes in handy in the new normal. Things to consider include the need for outsider input and real-time conversation, as well as the things to prepare for before the meeting.

2. Set out clear agenda

If you decided to hold that meeting after all, what should you do next? You have to create the meeting structure.

A well-constructed agenda not only saves time but also guarantees meeting success and participant satisfaction. Steven Rogelberg, the author of The Surprising Science of Meetings, estimates that 50% of meeting agendas are just recycled from meeting to meeting.

This highlights the need for meetings to go beyond mere updates or being a one-way street to a shared experience where everyone has an opportunity to participate. That’s why it is also crucial to send an outline of the agenda days before the meeting to help attendees prepare reports, draft questions, share suggestions, and voice out concerns.

To help teams realise the goals of the meeting, Rogelberg introduced a new agenda-setting model – framing agendas as questions to be answered. He explained that instead of designing the agenda as a set of topics to be tackled, framing it into a series of questions will aid managers in identifying who really needs to attend the meeting, when it should end, and whether it was a success (meaning, the questions were answered in a satisfactory way).

He adds that if managers can’t identify questions to be answered when planning the meeting, then that meeting might not be needed at all.

3. Keep it short and simple

A Microsoft research shows that high levels of sustained concentration during video meetings lead to fatigue that sets in at about 30 to 40 minutes. So, if you want your employees to stay sharp and focused, keep meetings as short as possible. Allot that time for the main discussion points, and if necessary, follow up by email for relevant information, documents, and other resources.

Spending half an hour for a meeting may sound challenging but this is where managers’ moderating skills will come in. Having a timebox will prevent employees from oversharing or talking about matters irrelevant and unrelated to the agenda.

An ideal moderator should be a good speaker and listener, attentive, and assertive. While having a plan will help the moderator run the meeting smoothly and effectively, the position also calls for flexibility.

4. Take breaks

Some meetings will take more than 30 to 40 minutes to finish and that’s normal. But, managers would have to consider the impact of long meetings on employee focus, productivity, and health.

Even though working nonstop may appear efficient, periodic breaks allow the brain to relax and renew. Research shows that long hours of sitting pose various health risks, and long hours of exposure to digital displays may lead to digital eye strain.

Simple or mini breaks such as water or coffee breaks, restroom breaks, stretch breaks, or any activity for staff to step away from their screens will lessen virtual meeting fatigue.

The 20-20-20 technique can also be good for the eyes. For every 20 minutes spent looking at a screen, look at something from 20 feet away for 20 seconds.

5. Minimise onscreen distractions

Stanford researchers say seeing yourself during video chats in real-time is exhausting and that teleconferences increase cognitive load. There are plenty of onscreen distractions such as all your colleagues’ faces flashing at the same time; the design and arrangement of their rooms, which may make you feel that you’re in ten rooms at once; their furniture, plants, books, as well as pets and family members walking in the background.

Managers may find the following advice useful to avoid distractions from all these visual cues:

  • Encourage participants to turn off their videos when they are not speaking.
  • Create a standard virtual meeting background to establish uniformity and prevent employees from inspecting their co-workers’ backgrounds.
  • Inform speakers to use presentations with minimalistic designs and relaxing colours for a longer attention span.

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Chief of Staff Asia