In a matter of days the Covid-19 pandemic upended every office routine, sending most knowledge workers home to figure out how to get their work done from their sofa (or garden shed). When the crisis started no one knew how this massive disruption would change our working lives, but some hard data is starting to trickle in.
I have good news and bad news for you.
The good news
I'll start with the good news. While Zoom fatigue is a real thing and no one is claiming the coronavirus has ushered in a meeting paradise, new research from the National Bureau of Economic Research shows that the pandemic has substantially cut down the amount of time we spend in meetings each day.
After analyzing data on the emails and meetings of more than three million workers around the world before and after the crisis hit, the researchers found that while the average number of meetings a day is up by 13 percent, the length of those meetings is down by 20 percent. That means we're spending 12 percent less time each day in meetings. That's bad news for office bloviators but good news for fans of more efficient meetings.
The researchers can't be sure why meeting lengths have shrunk since the start of the pandemic, but they suggest it may due to the need to squeeze them in between other responsibilities like childcare, the fact that remote setups make long meetings too boring to bear, or because organizations are using frequent meetings to replace impromptu water cooler chats that used to occur in the office.
"The lockdown introduced a host of new problems requiring unplanned, emergent coordination, much of which could be addressed through impromptu interaction if everyone were in the same office. With everyone working at home, however, short meetings could serve to quickly communicate new plans, share work that has been accomplished, increase accountability, calibrate priorities, provide social support, and achieve other purposes that are often handled informally in office settings," the study says.
The less good news
So go ahead and rejoice that the pandemic has cut down meeting bloat a little, but before you get too joyous, I also have bad news to share. While our total time in meetings is down, our total time working is up. Measured by the span between our first and last emails of the day, we're working 48.5 more minutes a day since the virus arrived.
Is that creeping expansion of working hours a good or bad thing? The authors aren't sure.
"On one hand, the flexibility to choose one's working hours to accommodate household demands may empower employees by affording them some freedom over their own schedule. On the other hand, the change in work schedule may be a consequence of a blurred distinction between work and personal life, in which it becomes easy to overwork due to the lack of clear delineation between the office and home," they write.
Whether the flexibility to design your own work hours outweighs the stress of keeping your personal and professional lives separate probably depends on the circumstances and preferences of the individual worker (though there's some evidence that younger workers are faring worse in remote setups).
But what's clear from these numbers is how we organize work remotely is significantly different from how we organize work in the office, and we're just starting to understand the consequences of the shift.
Have you found remote work has changed how your team conducts meetings?