Hybrid work

Online or IRL? When it comes to meetings, size matters

Research from Stanford economist Nick Bloom may demystify some of the trickier questions regarding online meetings.
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· 4 min read

In this age of pandemic telework, videoconferencing has been a useful tool used to keep workers connected in physically disconnected times, even if your webcam catches your toddler’s daring escape from a diaper change by streaking through the living room during your keynote address.

But telework’s ascendance has other downsides, and not just for the Jeffrey Toobins of the world. The proliferation of video meetings among white-collar workers has given rise to the phenomenon of “Zoom fatigue,” and research from the University of Arizona has shown that with cameras always on, workers feel exhausted. However, as society inches closer to a post-pandemic setup in which hybrid work is more common, it’s possible to find a balance that makes video conferences feel less draining and more efficient, according to research from Stanford economist Nick Bloom.

“I was talking to a CEO the other day…and [his company has] a town-hall meeting every Monday, which is several hundred employees. And he said every 60 seconds when they tried unmuting, there was like, a dog or a baby or alarm” that disrupted the call, Bloom explained to HR Brew.

Less is more. In a survey Bloom conducted with Paul Mizen, professor of monetary economics and research fellow Shivani Taneja, both from the University of Nottingham, 2,000 working adults in the UK were asked about meeting efficiency. The results suggest that online meeting efficiency deteriorates as the number of participants swells: Online meetings with two to nine attendees had a net positive efficiency rating, though this rate declined the more people were added to the call.

Online meetings with two to nine attendees had a net positive efficiency rating, but when meetings had 10 attendees or more, survey respondents reported a net negativity rating. The takeaway from researchers? “In-person meetings are preferred for gatherings of 10 or more.”

A graph showing how meeting efficiency drops as the size of meetings grow.

Putting it into practice. You’ve likely suffered through an unwieldy video meeting more than once by now: a dozen or so co-workers cutting each other off, or not knowing when to speak, as the meeting’s objective becomes murkier with each interjection. “The muting makes it just really cumbersome,” Bloom said. “It’s kind of like Jane Austen novels, where each person has to be introduced before they can speak to each other.”

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The survey also found that women tend to favor online meetings by a margin of 5%, while workers aged 30–39 said online meetings boosted efficiency by an average of 3.9%.

Survey respondents aged 40–49 said their efficiency increased even more with online meetings, which researchers quantified as a boost of 4.7%.

To calibrate the specific percentages, respondents were given options regarding meeting efficiency, ranking same, better, or worse, Bloom explained. From these three, a range of percentages were selected, and then an aggregate was put together to determine a net-efficiency rating for online vs in-person meetings.

Bigger in person. Bloom believes this research can help guide managers as they think about the future of work in a hybrid setting. “So the future of work post-pandemic…for professionals and managers, is hybrid,” Bloom said. “What this research tells you is you should hold all your large meetings on your office days. And your small meetings [are] your pick.”

To be sure, it’s not just size that matters, it’s also the motion of the meeting’s ocean. When it comes to running an efficient and productive hybrid meeting, consultants Bob Frisch and Cary Greene have some helpful tips: Writing in the Harvard Business Review, they advise actively bringing remote participants into the fold by showing in-person attendees on camera, and for a facilitator to “draw the remote participants in, keep them engaged, and ensure their voices are heard.”

Do you work in HR or have information about your HR department we should know? Email [email protected] or DM @SammBlum on Twitter. For confidential conversations, ask Sam for his number on Signal.

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