It’s only 2:30 in the afternoon, but I’m ready for a long nap. I’ve had four one-on-ones, one team standup, and two interviews—all over Zoom. I check my calendar, hoping to see a lighter schedule ahead. No luck. And I just remembered it’s only Tuesday.
Sound familiar? If you’re more stressed and tired after a day of video calls than you ever were after in-person meetings, you’re not alone. In fact, scientists from Microsoft’s Human Factors Lab studied human brain waves during video meetings and discovered “Zoom fatigue” is a very real thing.
Their research found remote collaboration in general is more mentally challenging than its in-person equivalent, and video meetings in particular are correlated with feelings of stress and fatigue for several reasons. First, to keep up with what’s happening, you have to stay focused on your screen. Second, you’re missing out on signals (like body language and gestures) that typically help you understand others’ emotions and the tenor of the conversation. And when anyone shares their screen, you have even fewer cues to go off on.
But as I cover in my book, Work-From-Home Hacks: 500+ Easy Ways to Get Organized, Stay Productive, and Maintain a Work-Life Balance While Working from Home!, you don’t have to give in to video meeting exhaustion. You can look to these meeting alternatives to take back your calendar, work better with your team members, and get more done. Even when you can’t cancel meetings completely, you can use these options to have shorter, more productive ones.
1. Write an Email
Next time you’re about to schedule a meeting to make an announcement, give straightforward instructions, or share information, ask yourself, “Is this hard to understand? Will anyone be surprised or have a lot of questions?” If the answers are “no” all around, send an email instead.
End with, “I’m happy to meet to discuss this—just let me know,” so people know they can reach out if they need to.
2. Send a Direct Message
Obviously, emails are less effective for passing along casual updates or asking quick questions. This is when an instant message on Slack or whatever you use at your company is perfect: At most organizations, employees try to respond within hours (if not minutes!)
Don’t be shy about messaging someone who’s more senior or out of your typical orbit. It might feel strange, but if you can email someone, you can chat with them. (Of course, you should still act professionally—steer clear of emojis, GIFs, and casual language unless the other person uses them first.)
3. Record a Video
You’ve probably had tens (if not hundreds) of meetings where you trained people how to do something, whether that was navigating your sales team’s customer relationship management (CRM) software, using a new feature in a project management tool, creating a presentation, or analyzing data.
These meetings can almost always be turned into recorded videos—or at least cut in half by sending a video in advance and then answering the person’s questions on the call.
Loom, CloudApp, Vidyard, and Soapbox are all free tools you can use to record yourself and/or your screen. Bonus: Your colleagues can come back to the video for reference as many times as they need. Plus, next time you need to teach someone else the same thing, you can reuse your video!
4. Create a Ticket
When you need to flag a bug or error or request a straightforward feature or update, you might be tempted to book time with the technical team or coworkers responsible.
But you will earn their eternal devotion (or at least their momentary gratitude) by creating a JIRA ticket, GitHub issue, or Trello card instead, depending on the system they use to keep track of bugs and tasks. You’ll keep their calendar clear and make it faster for them to understand and fix the issue.
5. Make an FAQ Doc
If you’re answering a series of common questions or consolidating related updates, create a one-pager instead of having the same conversation with multiple people. This doc can also be a handy resource for new hires or folks outside your team who need more context.
To make sure everyone can find it, pin it to the appropriate Slack or Microsoft Teams channels, save it to your team Google Drive, and/or upload it to your organization’s wiki.
6. Start a Thread on Chat or Within Your Project Management Tool
Don’t waste precious time getting or receiving simple updates. Rather than having a status meeting, kick off a status thread in the appropriate chat channel or whatever software you use to keep track of projects asking everyone to chime in with their updates.
It’s most effective if you provide a format for responses, such as:
- [Progress toward goal]
- [What I’ve done]
- [What I’m doing]
- [What I will do]
7. Mark Up a Document
Thanks to “Suggesting” mode in Google Docs and “Track Changes” in Microsoft Word files, you can give feedback on your team member or direct report’s memo, project overview, experiment summary, and so on.
It’s simple to show what changes you’re making—and why, if you add comments explaining your decision—and you can drop in other notes and questions as well. Plus, unlike giving feedback in a meeting, your colleague will have all your notes at hand next time they start a similar project.
8. Send Out a Survey
Not only do surveys tend to get more honest reactions than in-person discussions, they also level the playing field for folks who don’t feel comfortable speaking up (like the person who just joined the company two months ago or your conflict-averse coworker).
Google Forms, Typeform, and Survey Monkey are free options for designing straightforward surveys and then analyzing the results. Use them when you need feedback on a completed project, team or company initiative, or general employee engagement.
(You can also pair a pre-meeting survey with a 30-minute call to ensure you spend time on major themes and potential solutions versus fleshing out everyone’s opinions.)
9. Brainstorm on an Online White Board
Rather than getting everyone together to spitball ideas virtually—which, let’s face it, can be awkward and unproductive—have them share their thoughts visually.
Miro and MURAL are both great choices. Your team members can add sticky notes, images, diagrams, drawings, docs, and even GIFs. Next time you need the creative juices to flow, give your team a prompt and unleash them on a board.
(It’s not impossible to run a great virtual brainstorm with an actual meeting! If you want to incorporate a live component, read this.)
10. Get on the Phone
Go back to basics with a phone call. It’s less draining than a video meeting, since you don’t have to watch your own body language and facial cues while interpreting someone else’s.
Phone calls are best for straightforward conversations with one or two other people (any more, and the discussion gets hard to manage). You can even suggest a “walk and talk,” where you both walk around or head off to grab a coffee in your respective neighborhoods. Just make sure you won’t need to reference any notes.
A Few Quick Tips and Templates to Pivot Away From Video
So how do you actually reduce your Zoom time? Anytime you’re planning a meeting, pause for a moment and consider whether you could swap it out or shorten it by using one of the options on the list.
If you already have a meeting on the calendar, you can still consider changing it! When you’re the host, pivoting is a breeze. Update the meeting invitation with the new details; for example, if you’re switching from a video call to a phone chat, change the title to “Emily/Juan Phone Call” and the description to: “Let’s give ourselves a break from Zoom and do a phone call instead. I’ll ring your cell at noon your time.” Chances are, everyone on the invitation will be relieved.
Even if you’re not the one organizing the call, you can still suggest an alternative. It’s easiest to pivot a meeting to another plan when your direct report, or another more junior employee, is the one who suggested it. Respond with, “Let’s try tackling this with [meeting alternative] instead. If [you still have questions, want to talk more, etc.], I’m happy to schedule some time.”
If your peer is the one who asked for the meeting, take a softer approach: “Hey [name], thanks for sending an invitation to [accomplish X]. Are you open to [meeting alternative] first? It might give us all some time back.”
When a more senior coworker scheduled the meeting, tread carefully. You should only suggest an alternative if you have good rapport with this person and they’d be open to hearing something like: “We’ve got [amount of time] booked for [day] to [accomplish X]. I know you’re slammed, so I’d be happy to do [alternative] instead/first. Up to you—I’m also happy to meet!”
The meeting’s size and date come into play, too. Your coworker probably won’t appreciate a “Hey, should this be a recorded video?” message a few hours before a 30-person call that’s been on the books for two weeks. The smaller the group size and the further away the meeting is, the better.
Once your calendar is less crowded, you’ll have more energy for both independent work and the Zoom calls that matter.