Originally published for Fast Company January 20, 2022
Back when we are all in the office, communication could be as simple as stopping by a coworker’s office for a quick question or to have a brief discussion. Now, this requires an email, a phone call, a virtual meeting, increasing the time and effort just to connect.
One byproduct of this new routine is communication burnout. If you’re feeling burned out in your virtual meetings, chances are your colleagues, team, and bosses are feeling it, too. You can try to pep talk your way out of it, but if you aren’t feeling engaged yourself, it is probably a futile strategy to energize your team. You must put your oxygen mask on first before helping others, as they say.
Here are a few tips to help.
Take time back
I am currently consulting with a company that is extremely efficient with their meetings. One of the key traits I like about working with this company is that if we accomplish everything we need to before the scheduled time is over, the leader of the meeting says, “I think we are all clear on next steps, so let’s give everyone time back.”
Each time this occurs, it feels like a gift, and it is invigorating. The gift of time for anyone is priceless. Now you may be wondering why they’d schedule a meeting for a certain amount of time if it was only going to be cut short. They could have scheduled another meeting with this extra time. True, but would you rather have a meeting that was 15 minutes and you ran over time and are now running late to all your other meetings? Or would you rather set the expectation of a 30-minute meeting and have a sense of relief that it ended early, so you could attend to other tasks you thought you didn’t have time for?
When possible, if you know the goals of the meeting have been accomplished, and it is five, 10, or 15 minutes before the scheduled end, don’t feel obligated to use the entire time for the sake of using the entire time. Wrap up early when possible. It is a great way to acknowledge the meeting accomplished its purpose and allow the participants time for productivity or recharging.
Get better at scheduling breaks
I made the mistake early in the pandemic of scheduling meetings after meeting with no breaks. I felt depleted by the end of the day, but couldn’t understand why. I was dealing with the same workload and meetings I was used to in the office. Since then, we’ve learned that virtual communication takes far more of your concentration and cognitive effort. It is important to give yourself more breaks—not just for your eyes but for your sanity.
Be sure to give yourself at least 10 minutes in between meetings. Meetings will occasionally run over the allotted time. With a 10-minute buffer, you can avoid both being late to the next meeting and the associated stress of anticipating being late. If you are running on time, you can take those 10-minute intervals to walk away from your screen, give your eyes a break.
It is also important to block off time specifically for responding to emails, attending to any work that doesn’t involve a live meeting or simply regrouping.
Strive for variety
While routine can be comforting, strive for variety when it comes to your communication, especially in a virtual setting. One way to achieve this is with the camera function in your meetings. There can be a striking difference when interactions usually held on-camera move to audio-only. Communication is subtly looser and less adulterated. Likewise, interactions that are typically held using just audio can gain clarity and nuance when the cameras are turned on because you can recognize the nonverbal communication of the other participants.
I always suggest you match whatever the other person is doing in a one on one. If you are in a team setting, it should be agreed to either have all cameras on (if possible) or all cameras off. But if you are routinely holding meetings one way or the other, a change in format can breathe life into interactions that have become routine and stale.
Change is inevitable—that is guaranteed. What is important is to find ways to adapt for yourself to ensure you are thriving—and not simply surviving.