Trends are becoming clear six months into the pandemic about how digital communication patterns have changed—and it includes some surprises. You can take some leadership lessons from the first large-scale analysis just released by the Harvard Business School.
Using aggregated meeting and email meta-data from over 3 million users, the study finds that the average number of meetings has increased. That’s not surprising. And neither is it shocking that more attendees are in each meeting and more people, on average, are copied on email messages. We might have guessed these results in the absence of face-to-face exposure and serendipitous meetings.
The unexpected finding that tells us more about how people are getting down to brass tacks is that the average length of meetings has dropped by over twenty percent. Moreover, even with more meetings and more people attending, people are spending less total time in meetings each day.
Are we finally getting more savvy about meetings and dropping some of the cultural norms that worked against productivity?
To me these findings reflect a natural course for productivity improvement. The shock of so much wholesale remote work has shifted meeting culture to where it is much easier and more acceptable to type a note to the group chat and sign off when you need to drop out of a meeting early, for instance. Add to that universal experience with Zoom fatigue and the widespread reality finally at the forefront that people need to juggle other things in life besides work over the course of their days.
In the email category, the report, which examines data from 16 large metropolitan areas in North America, Europe, and the Middle East, shows a longer overall time span of emails being sent, pushing later in the day and well after normal business hours. People need to do what they can when they can. They may need to juggle parenting responsibilities throughout the day and catch up on things in what used to be after hours work. Overall, I would argue that this is another sign of improved efficiency in the use of time.
To me, this is a great opportunity for leaders to recognize the need for more focused meetings and more flexible participation in work. We have always known that a tight focus on a clear agenda helps make meetings better. Now we seem to have the best cultural opportunity to press that idea into action.
It seems like we can also fear less the addition of more attendees to meetings and to copy more people on email threads as a way to keep everyone on the same page. While in the old days that could prompt some unwieldy communication tangles, it seems to be a net positive now. People are hungry for information and they seem to be managing it better. Of course, this works well only if you are also committed to writing well, a crucial leadership skill these days.
An important lesson not explicit in the study’s take-aways, however, is that some smaller and one-on-one meetings need to shift to become less task oriented to becoming more human centered.
While work efficiency might be improving greatly, and time use is more effective, there is most definitely a need to process emotional elements of work and life in a safe and productive manner. Ruthless productivity is dangerous to mental health and our overall well being.
People need to connect. They need to be heard. And they need a way to process a complex set of inputs and feelings. For many of us that happens by talking things through with colleagues. As a leader, you need to make sure that is happening for your team—and for yourself.
People will be looking to you for leadership in this area, as was emphasized by a Harvard Business Review article published in the very first days of the lockdown:
“Research on emotional intelligence and emotional contagion tells us that employees look to their managers for cues about how to react to sudden changes or crisis situations. If a manager communicates stress and helplessness, this will have what Daniel Goleman calls a ‘trickle-down’ effect on employees,” the authors explain.
This does not mean that the challenges before you and the team should be ignored. In fact, it’s essential to acknowledge these truths and to give yourselves a chance to process the feelings together. However, it’s crucial that you as the leader provide confidence that the team can overcome these challenges. They need you to provide encouragement and infuse the group with some positive energy. Because this sentiment will cascade through the group and build a sense of focus and purpose. Don’t ignore the bad stuff, but follow up that processing by doubling down on hope and optimism.
As a leader, you also need to be sure to do this for yourself. Self-care is crucial to leadership and it’s essential to avoiding burnout. It’s also another great way to lead by example in these trying times. Your team needs to see you taking a vacation day, excusing yourself from meetings to tend to personal matters, and showing up at cocktail hour Zoom meetings. They also need to hear about your weekend adventures, how you are handling family challenges, and hobbies you are pursuing to keep yourself centered.
Leadership is always full of challenges and always needs to respond to changing dynamics. In many ways, the large scale and widespread shifts happening now present easy and ideal opportunities for you to shift your approach in important ways. Resist change now at your own peril, because it has perhaps never been more important to change with the times.