Citi, the third largest bank in the United States, announced Wednesday it was eliminating videoconference meetings on Fridays for its 210,000 employees. The rule applies to internal company meetings only--customers, regulators, and others outside the company can still schedule Friday videoconference meetings and expect Citi employees to show up to them. And Citi employees might still have to communicate by phone or audio on Fridays. But none will have to turn their cameras on.
The announcement came in an internal memo CEO Jane Fraser sent to all employees that has been viewed by several news organizations. Here are her reasons for the change, and some reasons why your company should consider banning Zoom, and maybe meetings in general, one day a week as well.
1. The pandemic has wearied us all.
Fraser's memo said:
The blurring of lines between home and work and the relentlessness of the pandemic workday have taken a toll on our well-being. It's simply not sustainable. Since a return to any kind of new normal is still a few months away for many of us, we need to reset some of our working practices.
This may be especially necessary in the famously hard-driving financial industry. Goldman Sachs is struggling with the fallout from a survey of first-year analysts who reported working more than 100 hours a week. Fraser's memo came one day later, and she seemed to have that kind of work schedule in mind when she wrote, "When our work regularly spills over into nights, very early mornings, and weekends, it can prevent us from recharging fully, and that isn't good for you nor, ultimately, for Citi."
In addition to no-Zoom Fridays, the memo encouraged employees to take their vacation time and urged them to stop scheduling meetings and calls outside business hours. Fraser also declared the Friday before Memorial Day this year a companywide holiday so all employees can "reset."
There's a small audience of Inc.com readers who receive a daily text from me with a self-care or motivational micro-challenge or thought. Often they text me back and we wind up in an ongoing conversation. (Interested in joining? You can learn more here.) They tell me that stepping away from work and getting the rest they need is doubly difficult since the pandemic.
Widening vaccine distribution and fewer Covid deaths mean there's light at the end of the tunnel, but we're not yet done with the pandemic, nor with the need for social distancing precautions. As we enter the final stretch, people's nerves are frayed and patience is wearing thin. Now is a great time to give everyone extra downtime as we all figure out what comes next.
2. Zoom really is exhausting. Science explains why.
The term "Zoom fatigue" has been around nearly as long as the pandemic has. But it got some street cred earlier this month when a Stanford professor did some research to explain why Zoom meetings tire people out more than in-person ones do.
His conclusions about why Zoom is exhausting are a good reminder of just how unnatural video conversations are. First, you find yourself staring into the face of other participants throughout the entire conversation in a way you would never do if you were in the same room with them--it would be seriously creepy if you did. Next, in addition to looking at them, you're also looking at your own image, essentially gazing into a mirror all day. Third, it's more difficult to pick up on nonverbal cues than it would be if you were in the same room. That means you work harder to understand other people's nonverbal communications and also put more effort into making your own nonverbal communications (a thumbs-up, for example) really clear so that others will pick up on them.
The fourth problem is that you're trapped in place, especially if you're using a computer. Even if you're on a mobile device, moving in and out of the frame or moving around with your device tends to be distracting for other participants, so most of us don't do it. And most people don't feel comfortable stepping away to use the bathroom or fetch a glass of water even though they might not hesitate to do those things in an in-person meeting. Also, although this wasn't part of the Stanford research, Zoom meetings can be scheduled back-to-back with no break in between, whereas in real life you'd likely leave a little time to get one from one meeting location to another.
Add it all up and there's no question that videoconferencing is contributing a lot to remote work burnout. Giving everyone one day a week when they don't have to deal with it should make a big difference.
3. A meeting-free day helps everyone get more done.
Back before most people had even heard of Zoom, the software startup Asana banned all meetings on Wednesdays. There was no pandemic and no reason colleagues couldn't meet as they always had, at conference tables with platters of pastry and cups of coffee, and pre-meeting chit-chat about each other's kids and the latest baseball score. And still, meetings were such a drag on morale and productivity that the company knew it could do better if everyone had one day a week that was free of them.
The benefits of no-meeting Wednesdays come from the nature of work itself. For company founders, owners, and other leaders, their job mostly consists of overseeing the work of other people. The simplest and easiest way to do this--from the bosses' point of view--is to call their reports into meetings where managers can check the status of ongoing projects, help with any obstacles their employees may have encountered, make plans, and brainstorm new ideas. But from the employees' point of view, every hour spent in a meeting is an hour spent not actually doing their jobs. Plus, maybe another hour spent preparing for the meeting, and then some more time getting back into the flow of work after the meeting is over. With multiple meetings in a day, it can be difficult to get much else done.
Keeping one day of the week meeting-free means people can plan for a day to focus on tasks that require uninterrupted blocks of time, such as writing a report or putting together a presentation. In this era of videoconferencing, it also gives them a day when they don't have to smile and look perky for the camera.
Whether in person or by video, a meeting-free day will help the people who work for you do their jobs better. If it makes sense for a giant bank and a software unicorn, doesn't it make sense for your company, too?