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Why does remote working lead to unproductive meetings?


Remote working has resulted in more meetings of lower quality, harming productivity, says study by Cambridge Judge Business School and the Vitality Research Institute published in MIT Sloan Management Review.

Why does remote working lead to unproductive meetings?

We’ve all known the feeling since lockdowns began in 2020: there seems to be an increasing number of work meetings on Zoom and other platforms, but the quality of those meetings is – there’s no nice way to phrase this – kind of rubbish. A large-scale study now backs up that nagging feeling.

What are low-quality meetings?

As outlined in a new article in MIT Sloan Management Review, the study from Cambridge Judge Business and School and the Vitality Research Institute of wellness and financial services group Vitality found that the average number of meetings increased by 7.4% from June 2020 to December 2021.

The study based on more than 1,000 Vitality workers found further that people in most departments “now spend more hours in low-quality meetings” – defined as meetings in which participants multitask (do something else during a meeting), are double-booked into competing meetings or tasks, or are accompanied by “another person with a similar role” (which is perhaps a meetings equivalent of a person requesting unnecessarily to be cc’d on an email).

Low quality meetings reduce productivity and increase stress

“Low-quality meetings often translates into less productivity and high levels of multitasking can increase stress,” says study co-author Thomas Roulet, Associate Professor in Organisational Strategy at Cambridge Judge Business School.

The study, which looked at employees from four Vitality locations in the UK and across all business units, is based on automated data collection using Microsoft Workplace Analytics complemented by weekly surveys.

Five core workplace behaviours that impact wellbeing and work outcomes

The authors focused on five core workplace behaviours that have the most significant impact on a range of wellbeing and work outcomes:

  1. collaboration hours (meetings, calls, dealing with emails)
  2. low-quality meeting hours
  3. multitasking hours during meetings (including sending emails)
  4. “focus” hours (blocks of at least two hours with no meetings)
  5. workweek span (number of hours worked per week).

Four factors that define work capacity

Work capacity was captured on the basis of four factors:

  1. life and work satisfaction
  2. anxiety and stress levels
  3. work energy
  4. work-life balance.

“The relationships emerging from the data are clear: working longer (a higher workweek span), less productively (more low-quality meetings) and in arguably a more stressful manner (higher levels of multitasking) is associated with universally worse outcomes” including a decline in work-life balance and quality of work, the article says.

“More after-hours work predominantly affects one’s sense of work engagement but has no real impact on work productivity and quality. Increased focus hours affect work outcomes but not work engagement.”

How does remote and hybrid working affect wellbeing of senior vs junior employees?

Thomas Roulet.
Thomas Roulet

The authors conclude that the shift over the past two years toward remote or hybrid working has improved wellbeing for some workers but not others, so they caution against a “blanket approach” to workplace rules such as requiring employees to come into the office for a set number of days or under specific conditions.

The research found, for example, that increasing “focus” hours was beneficial to senior employees who may need to concentrate on more complex tasks, but it decreased wellbeing for junior employees who “want more social interactions rather than working in isolation of their team”.

The article in MIT Sloan Management Review – entitled “How shifts in remote behaviour affect employee wellbeing” – is co-authored by Shaun Subel, Director at the Vitality Research Institute; Martin Stepanek, Lead Researcher at the Vitality Research Institute; and Dr Thomas Roulet, Associate Professor in Organisational Strategy at Cambridge Judge Business School.