One thing that the pandemic could be changing? Meeting lengths

By Diana Shi

As more people work from home, one feature of the typical workday appears to be changing shape: the humble meeting. This essential workday function, once carried out in conference rooms, cafés, or in the office kitchen, is becoming more frequent—and with more meetings comes a longer day overall.

In a recently released working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research, researchers looked at email and calendar data from more than 3 million workers. They found that the average workday has been extended by 48.5 minutes since pre-COVID-19 times, from 9.84 hours to a whopping 10.75 hours.

This could mean that workers are simply working longer, perhaps because they’re using the time they previously spent commuting to get more done. Or it could be they’re following less regimented schedules.

“It’s unclear if that means that employees are actually working longer days, or if they’re working more irregular hours, like sending emails at night,” says Evan DeFilippis, first author of the research paper and a PhD candidate at Harvard Business School. “It’s probably a combination of both, but in any case, it’s an interesting finding that people’s working hours are very clearly more irregular than they were prior to COVID-19 lockdowns.”

Longer workdays and more meetings

In addition to longer workdays, the frequency and number of meetings is increasing, the researchers found. But people are also spending less time in these meetings. Percentage-wise, meeting attendance is increasing by 12.9%. According to the paper’s authors, the average length of a meeting has declined by 20.1%, from 1 hour to 0.79 hours, while the average meeting count rose from 5.9 meetings prior to coronavirus lockdowns to 6.9 meetings.

That rings true for Ruth Kowitz, a senior growth product manager at meal kit company Sun Basket. She says she’s noticing more “bite-size meetings” versus longer 30- or 60-minute sessions. “[Before] COVID-19, our company wasn’t seeing a lot of 15-minute meetings pop up on the calendar—but now, we’re trying to be more mindful and respectful of people’s time, while also giving people breaks throughout the day.”

There may be a few things causing the reduction in meeting length:

    Shortened attention spans. With meetings taking place online, distractions abound. Your inbox is pinging; your phone is going off with news alerts; your kids are coming over to share some midday discovery with you. Moreover, virtual meetings are less engaging than in-person meets and can drain your energy.

    Interdependence with meeting frequency. With the length of meetings getting cut down, the average length is also declining. The paper’s authors also found that there are more attendees within each meeting (an increase of 13.5%).

    Changed purposes of meetings. With companies’ shift to remote work, managers feel the need to check in with their employees more frequently. Before the pandemic, managers used meetings to share information, whereas now, many managers treat them as a way to keep workers accountable.

Managing work-life balance

According to a 2017 paper, during the Great Recession workers also billed more hours and produced more work. Additionally, in previous economic downturns, researchers found that a majority of workers felt their work-life balance was a problem, according to a survey released in September 2010. Around one-third (38%) of an 89% majority responded that their work-life balance was worsened because of the economic recession during the 2007-2009 period.

Maintaining this separation between work and life has gotten more complicated with the addition of “always on” modern tools, which encourage quick response times. Along with feeling beholden to the constant connectivity of technology, stressed-out workers struggled to bring their best self to the office. DeFilippis says, “Even before the pandemic, it was clear that the lines were getting increasingly blurred with people taking their phones to bed, with platforms like Slack, where people are constantly plugged in. It’s clear that the post-COVID-19 period has exacerbated all that.”

He also notes that the lack of barriers between home and work life can naturally lead employees to let healthy mental practices, such as time management, fall by the wayside as “the work-life distinction is increasingly blurred, where people don’t really realize that they’re overworking.”

How are workers feeling?

While researching the working paper, DeFilippis and his coauthors discovered that many workers don’t mind more hours to their day, if it means they can have greater control over their schedules. A few extra meetings in exchange for a more relaxed schedule to homeschool and spend time with family? Not a huge sacrifice. “One thing we’ve been hearing from people is that they don’t mind working those extra hours if it means being able to structure their day in a way that is consistent with their preferences,” says DeFilippis.

A reformulation of meeting length and necessity opens up new “white space” in workers’ lives. Kowitz says she feels less pressure to jump back and forth between personal demands and the physical office. “The more structure and formats to meetings gives me time back in my day. Since I don’t have to work about factoring in the commute, a quick doctor’s appointment no longer feels like such a huge burden in the middle of the day.”


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