M
eetings have always been a problem in the workplace, causing frustration, poorly utilized time, and analysis paralysis. Since fully remote work was foisted on many companies in March 2020, we have aggravated this problem in a knee-jerk reaction to not being able to be in the same space, and overcompensating with constant [video] contact. Because we’re remote, many of us are working globally, meaning across time zones and potentially 24/7. Finally, the rate of change in micro and macro conditions has led many teams to over-meet. Our individual and team performance is suffering as a result; with remote work and rapid change here to stay, it’s time to get more intentional about meetings.

The concept of “Meeting Math” refers to properly accounting for all the time required to do meetings in this more intentional way, which includes time and effort spent before and after the meeting as well as the meeting time itself. If each participant doesn’t have some preparation and follow-up work to do for a meeting, their presence at the meeting was likely useless. To avoid Zoom fatigue and burnout from overwork more generally, it’s critical to budget for meetings, including the time necessary for the work required before and after. That calculation — and calendaring — will avoid the all-too-common 2020 condition of being in back-to-back Zoom meetings from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. — or worse for global teams.

Time to Account for Before a Meeting

The meeting host must thoughtfully prepare for any meeting, which includes setting the objective of the meeting with a specific desired outcome and agenda; identifying who should participate, rather than be updated afterward; and choosing the duration and format. Not ALL meetings should include video. Particularly for a small group of participants who already know each other and a topic that is not particularly sensitive, it can save bandwidth — both human and technical — to hold a simple phone meeting.

Once prepared, the host will request preparation work from all participants. This might be reading a background document, reviewing notes from a past meeting, providing specific input from their unique perspective, or reflecting on the meeting’s agenda and objective. This shared preparation optimizes the precious time together as well as all participants’ ability to contribute their unique perspectives. Research shows that creativity is maximized when participants think over an issue independently before discussing ideas in a group. This approach also enhances inclusion by giving introverts and non-verbal processors time to formulate thoughts beforehand.

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Fit These Elements into Your Meetings

Focus is even more elusive in 2020 for all kinds of reasons, from pets and kids in our “offices” to distracting and disturbing factors in our lives and communities. Multitasking and daydreaming are not new bugs in meetings, but they have gotten worse. That is why now is the time to build personal check-ins and mindfulness into your meeting routine if you hadn’t already. Given the impact of our individual states of mind on the success of any meeting, you should invest at least 20% of any meeting into preparing participants for the work at hand.

Mindfulness can take a multitude of forms, depending on the culture and preferences of your meeting participants. It could be as simple as 60 seconds of silence to breathe deeply or a two-minute movement break to stand up and stretch or shake or dance. It could also be a more pointed guided meditation to set participants up for the work at hand, whether that’s conflict resolution, big-picture visioning, or work planning. Many of these practices can be simple and require no training to lead, beyond a willingness to improve your team’s performance and make the most of the meeting time. You can also borrow guided meditations from resources available, both free and paid, on the internet.

Either before or after some kind of grounding meditation, also make space for personal check-ins. We all have a multitude of concerns beyond the scope of a certain meeting, indeed beyond the scope of the entirety of our work responsibilities. This condition is not new but highlighted in the tumult of 2020 and our respective concerns about health, economic security, racial violence and injustice, and fires and floods threatening our homes. Acknowledging those other concerns can free participants’ minds for the topic at hand. Meetings are not and should not be used as therapy sessions, but a simple one-word check-in or one-minute round-robin for each participant to share whatever is on their mind can have exponential returns for the presence and productive conversation that can follow.

Be sure to conclude the discussion at least 5 minutes before the scheduled end of your meeting (or 10% of the meeting time for meetings longer than one hour) to identify — and budget — the follow-up required. Make a list of what is required of participants, including things that everyone will do and specific tasks that will fall to individual people. Have those people ballpark the amount of time they expect the follow-up to take. This wrap-up time can also be used to set a follow-up meeting if required.

Finally, include some personal elements in your wrap-up. One simple idea is to mirror the one-word check-in with a one-word checkout for participants to describe how they’re leaving the meeting. This can be a powerful indicator for the host and all participants to understand how people are feeling about the discussion and decisions reached. A host can also ask participants to share a word of gratitude for something that happened in the meeting or earlier in their day to close on a mindful and positive note.

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Walking meetings are an excellent way to mitigate Zoom fatigue and are good for your health! (Photo credit: Getty)

Depending on the topic, size, and timing of your meeting, it can be powerful to build in physical activity. Depending on the format and content of the meeting, encourage participants to walk and talk (even if they’re simply pacing in their workspace), stand up, or sit at a couch or non-desk space for the meeting. Adding this kinesthetic element to the meeting — and to your participants’ days — is good for their physical health and can access a different way of thinking. This variation is good for all of us and unlocks individual thinking styles to elicit the best of your team’s diversity.

If There’s No Follow-Up, Did The Meeting Even Exist?

Assuming you’re able to reach a decision in the meeting itself, there will be some follow-up required of all participants, even if it’s just sharing the outcome with another colleague or changing their behavior according to the meeting decision. Others will likely have tasks that require significant time and effort. If you’ve followed these guidelines, you will have identified those follow-ups — and how long they should take — in the wrap-up of the meeting itself. The host or an appointed note-taker should share those follow-ups and effort estimates with all meeting participants on the same day of the meeting.

Participants should calendar the tasks required afterward to properly account for the time required to fully participate beyond the minutes spent in the meeting itself. The preparation and follow-up work of meetings must be counted for accurate Meeting Math. While five hours of meetings a day might sound somewhat do-able based on a standard eight-hour day, it becomes absurd when you include preparation and follow-up time and then assumes that all of us have our own work beyond meetings.

3 Steps to Avoid Zoom Fatigue

There’s a lot here, and it might look a lot different from your current meeting practices. You don’t need to change it all at once — perfect is the enemy of the good! But here are some basic principles to be considered starting now, if you want to rehab your team from the Zoom fatigue that has inevitably set to some degree.

1. Get mindful

Even the simplest 60 seconds of silence or a playful stretch break can make a massive difference in the presence of your participants and will turbocharge the effectiveness of your meetings.

2. Get personal

This might be the least comfortable for some meeting leaders, but addressing people’s non-work selves and concerns is no longer optional. We’ve always “brought our whole selves to work,” we’ve just pretended we didn’t and called the resulting drama “workplace politics.” Amid four existential crises —a global pandemic, racist violence and injustice, extreme weather, and once-in-a-generation economic uncertainty ‚everyone is worried about something outside your meeting. You can’t make them stop worrying, but you can give them space to air it and free their mind for the topic at hand.

3. Use Meeting Math

Start accounting now for the time required for meeting prep and follow-up. Put it on your calendar (and participants’ calendars) as soon as you schedule a meeting. If you need less and get some of that time back, great. Then cap the amount of time you can each spend in meetings and the related work. This will vary for different people — people managers might spend a higher portion of time in meetings, whereas strategists or creatives might need more head-down independent time to do their work. But everyone on your team needs some time for their own thinking! Let these caps evolve as you all get comfortable with Meeting Math. Setting these expectations and boundaries is critical to not tragically overscheduling yourself and your team and the dangerous burnout that results.

Click here to receive a free guide to facilitation, which is ultimately what the host is doing in the most effective meetings.

This article originally appeared in the Forbes Leadership column. B The Change gathers and shares the voices from within the movement of people using business as a force for good and the community of Certified B Corporations. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the nonprofit B Lab.