There have been a number of reports recently concluding that our workweeks have become longer in the era of remote work. Those studies acknowledge that people are working longer hours, but suggest that the increase is due to workers being “distracted with other obligations while working from home.”
Recently, my startup, which builds a platform to help busy professionals manage their calendars more efficiently, did a similar analysis using aggregated, anonymized data across over 15,000 users. What we found echoed earlier studies, but with a twist: The workday has gotten 1.4 hours longer on average – not due to “other obligations,” but due to an increase in work meetings.
Professionals are attending more meetings than they ever did pre-pandemic. The number of weekly meetings is up 69.7% since February 2020 – about 7.3 more hours of meetings a week – for a total of 21.5 hours of meetings per week on average, over half of the standard 40-hour workweek. This increase is driven by an explosion in the number of one-on-one meetings, which account for 79.6% of new meetings.
Meetings are getting shorter – by about 11% on average – but that’s likely because people are trying to cram more of them into a workweek. And, because they’re having trouble keeping up with all these meetings, they’re rescheduling and canceling meetings a lot: On a weekly basis, 42.4% of one-on-ones get rescheduled and 29.6% are canceled.
This data should raise some red flags. A workweek filled with back-to-back meetings, longer hours, and decreased time to focus on one’s priorities across work and life is a recipe for burnout.
So what can we do to help our employees? Here are a few suggestions as a remote startup founder, employee, and advocate.
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Embrace core collaboration hours. Companies like Dropbox are eliminating the traditional workweek, implementing “nonlinear workdays” that allow employees to work around a 3-4 hour period where everyone is expected to be available for meetings – and then flex their days as they see fit.
This policy forces the organization to compress its meetings into a smaller chunk of the day, which naturally limits how out-of-control the load can get. More broadly, it enables employees to build their workday how they see fit outside of those core hours.
Some organizations bristle at the idea of nonlinear workdays. My opinion? Those companies are going to have a harder and harder time retaining their employees as more of their competitors start to offer it.
Offer tools to decrease the burden of scheduling. Rescheduling in and of itself doesn’t seem like a big contributor to burnout, but there’s a lot of downstream pain that comes with it.
When a meeting needs to be rescheduled, especially at the last minute, it creates cascading stress for everyone: They need to not only find a new time for the meeting, they likely need to reschedule a number of other events as a result.
Giving your employees access to software that automates scheduling can be a huge benefit for their sanity. It frees people up to focus on what they do best and offloads the scheduling problems to a robot. There are lots of reasonably-priced or free tools in this space.
Retain boundaries in the era of flexibility. Even if you embrace flexibility in the workweek, it can’t be used to erode boundaries between work and life. Showing employees that you care about them drawing a hard line between their workday and their “off hours” is critical to retaining them and keeping them engaged.
A simple rule is to have a cutoff time where no one should expect to be emailed or Slacked. Like core collaboration hours, this also naturally limits the number of meetings that can be scheduled in a given workday.
The increase in meetings in the era of remote work isn’t totally surprising or bad: People are looking for ways to stay connected to one another, and meetings are a natural outlet for that. But as employers, it’s our responsibility to ensure we’ve created an environment where people can really be the best versions of themselves across work and life – and if they’re drowning in meetings, that’s just not going to happen.