The average work meeting is 20% shorter since Covid-19

Good meeting, let’s break.
Good meeting, let’s break.
Image: AP Photo/Richard Vogel
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The mass shift to remote work since the onset of Covid-19 has created plenty of problems for employees, from the rise of anxious micromanagers to aching backs from long hours working without ergonomic office chairs.

But there’s at least one bright spot: Data suggest that meetings may have actually changed for the better.

The length of the average meeting is down by 20%, according to a new working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research, which measured how digital communications have changed since workers went on lockdown this year. And while the number of meetings the average person goes to per day is up 13%, the collective amount of time that the average person spends in meetings per day is nonetheless down by 12%. In sum: We may be attending more meetings in the Zoom era, but they seem to be running more efficiently.

The paper, which has not yet been peer reviewed, drew from aggregated metadata on emails and meetings from more than 3 million users in North America, Europe, and the Middle East, both eight weeks before and eight weeks after government-mandated lockdowns.

The average number of attendees at meetings has increased—perhaps reflecting organizations’ newfound need to spread information that might otherwise be conveyed via unplanned, individual interactions in the office. In a remote setting, the authors suggest, briefer, more frequent 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.” Moreover, the people running meetings may be more aware of workers’ short attention spans in a virtual setting than they are when they’ve got a captive audience gathered in a conference room.

If the news on the meeting front is relatively rosy, there’s reason to worry about the broader impact of the shift to remote work. The length of the average workday is up by about 50 minutes, which the authors attribute in part to a higher volume of emails sent after business hours. “The average workday span of an employee was higher in every week following the lockdown than any week in the eight weeks prior to the lockdown,” the paper reports.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing: The authors say the longer workday span may reflect employees taking advantage of flexible hours. Employees may be signing off later in the day because they’ve taken some time off in the middle to exercise or spend time with their kids. But as the authors observe, in the remote era, it’s also “easy to overwork due to the lack of clear delineation between the office and home.”