“Zoom fatigue” is now a trending topic—just as a culture of endless work meetings was trending before the pandemic. I sympathize and relate, and appreciate the studies about which parts of the online meeting experience are wearing us out. Who knew staring at ourselves for so long would have such a draining effect—Adonis would be outraged!

How can we improve meeting cultures within our organizations?

Even before the unique challenge of the pandemic, I’ve thought a lot about obstacles to effective meeting culture. Knowledge work inevitably requires coordination and discussion among multiple people. Yet in many cases, poor meeting culture stems from a lack of transparent  decision-making processes and criteria. Now, as ever, we also need best practices that, despite their sense, remain too elusive: a set agenda (sent ahead of time), stated meeting goals and objectives, facilitation that ensures a voice for every attendee, and hands-on time management. 

Another big issue is FOMO: too often staff feel obligated to “courtesy invite” half of the organization to every meeting. I get it. Earlier in my career, I set up a meeting with only the colleagues who I needed input and approval from—and then got an earful from others in the department about how they should have been invited, even though they had zero responsibilities on the project. This is an organizational culture issue that points to issues of trust and role alignment. Good note-taking norms can help considerably. When high quality notes are reliably and quickly shared after all meetings, and stored in a common location, colleagues will stay informed without unnecessarily disrupting their schedules.

Yet another common issue that Zoom exacerbates is confusion around types of meetings. Is every online (or office) interaction now an official meeting? At PTKO, a recent review of Zoom data shows that a very large proportion of our activity consists of one-on-one meetings. Should a one-on-one co-working session be considered the same as the Monday morning staff meeting? We think not. 

What we’ve learned from 7 years of running a remote company

PTKO has been a fully remote company since our inception seven years ago. As a result, we’ve had some time to confront and work through many of the issues that now dominate the zeitgeist. I’m familiar with all the adjustments that a move to fully remote work requires. For example, it took me months to figure out why my energy would be so low at the end of the day (or at random points during the day)—even though I talked to my partners and clients all the time on Zoom. As an extrovert, I value the kinetic energy of being physically close to other people. This also means that I’ve also wrestled with loneliness. There is something that feels fantastic about sitting in a room and doing creative whiteboarding with your partners; it’s natural to miss it!

Despite the downsides, we’ve seen the strong benefits of being fully remote. It has enabled us to be fully present in markets beyond a 30 mile radius, and recruit a broader range of talent. And we’ve learned firsthand that organizational productivity is completely unrelated to being stationed at a cubicle from 9-5. While the physical disconnection is real, we’ve evolved ways to bring joy to our remote work, and embrace a hub-based model that will once again make periodic meet-ups possible after the worst of the pandemic has ebbed.

Keeping up energy and momentum in the midst of uncertainty

The deepening conversation about Zoom fatigue—and our broader pandemic fatigue, which I strongly feel—signals that certitude of any kind is still elusive at best.

It is hard to plan as an individual, let alone at the organizational level, in the midst of such chaos. Yet the world has not stopped spinning. Business and currency are still flowing—even if not in the ways we’d grown used to. We will gain control over the virus, and this pandemic will end. 

Whether or not your organization eventually returns to a physical office, it’s essential for all of us to transition from a culture of constant meetings, to one that enables and prioritizes independent work time. For example, can we use signals like a greenlight on Slack to show we are “at work” and open for business, as opposed to a morning check-in? Can we place effectiveness and completion of efforts ahead of always needing to “show” our work? What are the small things we can do now to show trust for our teams? 

 In addition to elevating best practices, we need to temper expectations about what we can achieve in these online events and meetings. They are not simple replications of the IRL conferences or morning huddle meetings we had in Jim’s office. Some of our basic needs for connection and belonging simply have to be met through other means.

The majority of us, especially us knowledge workers, are lucky to live in a time when shut downs and distancing do not equal lockouts and lost connections. Our technologies and mediums can transcend space and geography—and much of the current experience is a rushed version of where knowledge work was meant to end up eventually. It’s valuable to consider the many advantages that working like this affords, and how we can continue experimenting to see what fits our organizations as we prepare for the future.

For now we must embrace the moment in all it’s imperfection and uncertainty. Stay safe, mask up and don’t freeze up. We will come out of this by getting through it, together.