Meetings are a giant time suck. Knowledge workers in the 21st century typically resign themselves to this fact and accept that they’ll lose hours each week to watching their colleagues explain business plans with trapezoids, funnels, and arrows.
But in the remote-work era, the everyday nuisance of meetings has transformed into an all-out nightmare for working parents—particularly the working moms who are shouldering the bulk of chores and childcare, according to Frances Frei, a Harvard Business School professor and Anne Morriss, a leadership coach and executive founder of The Leadership Consortium. (Frei and Morriss, who are married to one another, speak from personal experience as parents themselves.)
Already time-strapped and stretched to their limits, working parents minding kids at home simply cannot afford to put up with meandering check-ins, inconvenient call times, and back-to-back Zoom tête-à-têtes, they say.
“If you haven’t optimized your meetings,” Frei says, “it’s killing everyone, and it’s killing working moms.
With one in four women in the US and Canada considering leaving their jobs or otherwise scaling back because of the stress of juggling work and childcare, employers and managers need to do whatever they can to support and accommodate working moms—or risk losing them entirely. Making a few changes to the way meetings are run is a good place to start.
Video calls have quickly become the norm at companies eager to find a substitute for regular face-to-face interactions. But Zoom chats put an extra layer of pressure on working parents to present a “professional” appearance.
A Wall Street Journal article this summer, for example, argued “pets and children are no longer the cute intrusions they were in the early days of the pandemic”—a decidedly un-family-friendly sentiment, but one that women may nonetheless worry about. Typical Zoom etiquette also advises that workers ensure that their backdrops look tidy and their outfits pulled-together, a tall order when there are small children running amok at all hours.
As Frei puts it, there is no Zoom filter “good enough to pick up all the stuff in the background.”
“You have to clean the room, you have to put on makeup, you have to put on pants that don’t have elastic,” Morriss adds.
Instead, they advise that companies make phone calls the default for all one-on-one meetings. Many employers have a long history of putting too much value on face time, but now is the time to change that.
“The big problem for working parents is their day just never, ever, ever ends,” Morriss says. “It is just relentless.” One of the most common problems they face are morning meetings scheduled before school or childcare start times, which put working parents in the position of having to do two jobs at once.
Thankfully, this problem is also easy to fix. All managers have to do is ask their teams about what times are tricky for them, and adjust meeting schedules as needed. “Any time you can make it discussable that people have whole lives and those lives include children and that children sometimes get sick, and their day is not a typical adult human’s working day, it makes a huge psychic difference,” Morriss says.
Most Zoom meetings are twice as long as they need to be, according to Frei. One way to make conversations both more productive and shorter is to abide by the principle, “Diverge before you converge.”
“Whenever one person speaks in a meeting and they’re going to give a point of view, if left unaided, the next person is likely to give a similar point of view, and the next one a similar point of view, until you fill the allotted time,” Frei says. Not only does this waste time, it can pave the way to bad decisions because people don’t feel comfortable breaking with the group.
Instead, she recommends that meeting facilitators step in after the first person gives their perspective. Then ask, “Can someone articulate a different point of view?” After the next person speaks, see if anyone is able to offer yet another distinct point of view. This way, Frei says, “meetings will go faster and be of higher quality.”
“It’s really good practice in the beginning of the meeting to say, This is the topic of this meeting. If you don’t need to be in this meeting, go ahead and sign off now,” Frei says. Sometimes this caveat can also be included in the meeting agenda, so people know they don’t have to show up ahead of time.
One way to help working parents is to minimize the time they spend on what Frei calls “non-value-added activities”—such as “anything that is being produced for internal consumers but doesn’t ever see the light of day” in public.
“If someone on Zoom does a long PowerPoint, it’s a tragedy around the world,” Frei says. Company leaders should emphasize that the important thing in an internal meeting is conveying information, not how it’s presented.
Try to end every meeting 10 minutes early, Frei advises. Freeing up a bit of time that was previously blocked off can be a small gift from the heavens. “You know who really needs that? Working parents.”
If all of these ideas sound like they’d benefit people without children as much as they would working moms, that’s no coincidence. “What we’ve found,” Morriss says, “is that if you make the organization better for working moms, you make it better for everyone.”