69

In our software development team we have a colleague who is both a great engineer with a sense of responsibility and a great person. She is usually very involved in discussions during our meetings, but it is clear that meetings in general, and those with more people specifically, are extremely tiring for her — much more than for the rest of the team. After most meetings, especially those that involve more than 2-3 other people, she is visibly tired and she needs a break to recover. Thankfully, we do have a relax room in our office.

So far we had some rearrangements to have a less noisy environment around her. We also collected several short meetings into a single longer one, so now we usually do our organization/planning as a single block of 2-4 hours each week, as opposed to having three-four shorter meetings on different days. This seems to be better for her, both in terms of productivity (which is also a sentiment shared by the rest of the team, so we'll likely stay with this setup) and in her subjective opinion. At the same the one big meeting is even more taxing on her.

Can we do better? Is there anything we can do to make meetings more bearable, help her recover after them or maybe make further changes to our work environment that could help her?


Responding to comments: We did ask her about this, and the changes I describe are the result of our discussion. She never said anything about any specific medical or psychological conditions or sensitivities, and I fear asking explicitly might be not proper as her colleague.

  • 3
    Is she required to be there for the entire meeting? For example if only 30% of the meeting pertains to what she does, give her the option to only attend for the duration of her involvement then step out to get back to work. – jesse Apr 10 at 13:45
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    In your second paragraph, I'm confused by this: "This seems to be better for her" versus this: "the one big meeting is even more taxing on her" – dwizum Apr 10 at 13:47
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    @dwizum, she says she prefers having one very tiring meeting a week than several somewhat less tiring each day. We have a team of 6 software developers, half of them part-timers, with a very flat and scrum-ish structure — so the way we organize our work, including meetings, is mostly our collective decision. – user102582 Apr 10 at 14:01
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    @JoeStrazzere It's not a physical/mental condition, but likely just a result of an introverted personality type. It's well known that introverts tend to need a recharge period after socializing. Link – Steve-o169 Apr 10 at 15:05
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    Did you ask her about it? – Mikey Apr 10 at 19:15
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2-4

A four hour meeting is unacceptable for any human. Forget about her specific use case. In the broadest sense, meetings do not help with productivity and serve more as inhibitors rather than amplifiers.

Some suggestions:

  • Keep meetings short.
  • Keep them focused
  • When a meeting starts, establish an end time and stick to it
  • Establish a goal for the meeting (None of this: "Well, let's talk about...")
  • Only include the parties that are absolutely needed
  • Take breaks during very long meetings. (after 30-45 minutes)
  • If you sense things are going in circles, end the meeting. There's no point in burning piles of money for all the people in the room if you're just spinning your wheels.
  • Stand up during the meeting, that usually creates a sense of urgency. (not for everyone)

Most of the time with meetings, the general problem is too many people are brought along so keep the number small.

If people have their devices out in a meeting and they're just passively listening, remove them. They clearly don't belong there. Have a "no phone" rule, this might not be feasible, but I promise people will want the meeting to end sooner, rather than later.

Peopleware covers this perfectly: Most meetings are about ceremony, not about work. So start trimming that fat and remove the unnecessary people and items from the meeting.

To OP: I would ask "Does she absolutely need to be present for everything?" Is her expertise needed for every single item? If it's about keeping her in the loop, maybe then just send her the minutes or a memo of an overview of the meeting? Ask that question for every person in the room for every item. I doubt every person is needed for every item and thus, maybe it'll allow you to have smaller standup meetings surrounding particular items of concern rather than have everyone there for a sit down where at any particular point, the information being conveyed is only pertinent to half the people there.

  • 60
    I've sat in lots of meetings that could have been replaced with a quick email or slack conversation. To paraphrase Boyd K Packer: There is no meeting so great that it's as good as not having to have that meeting. – MGOwen Apr 11 at 0:47
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    Warning: if you try to keep her out of meetings, make sure that she takes this as a positive, because even if she hates them she could think she's being included. Just be aware of how you communicate it to her – Hobbamok Apr 11 at 9:22
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    Worst meetings I have seen: a project manager scheduling a meeting with N people to get their updates. Great for the project manager, waste of time for everyone else who spends (N-1)/N fraction of the meeting just listening to things that do not concern them. – Matthieu M. Apr 11 at 9:32
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    @user102582 the statement about 2-4 hours being too long is completely on point, especially if it happens once a week. Retro, review and planning all have separate purposes. I've worked in a team that held them all on the same day before (scheduled for 4-6 hours but frequently running over 9), and the lead was not receptive to the idea of changing that. I'm a meeting hating introvert myself (although not to the level it sounds like your team mate is). That day long meeting was the major reason I left that job. Now I attend 3 meetings running less than an hour each, and they're suddenly useful. – Player One Apr 11 at 12:18
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    Having a written agenda before the meeting that is sent out to all attendees and adhered to assiduously is helpful also. – Todd Wilcox Apr 11 at 13:41
52

Ask her, not the internet. She'll know what she wants and needs better than we will.

Don't just ask her either. Try and get the whole team to have regular talks together about what's working well for them and what isn't, listen to their suggestions and change things based on them.

  • 12
    We did and the actions I described are the outcome. And we ran out of ideas, yet the problem is still there, even if reduced in scope to mostly one day. So now I'm asking the internet for new ideas. – user102582 Apr 10 at 13:58
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    So you're suggesting another meeting to discuss what could be improved in the meeting? Seems counterproductive to the point of the question, honestly. – Steve-o169 Apr 10 at 19:18
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    @Steve-o169 it doesn't need to be a formal meeting - it could be the team going out to coffee or talking through a shared lunch, or even a group chat in Whatsapp or something. Just so long as it's regular, honest and their feedback gets listened to. – Player One Apr 10 at 21:10
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    I would suggest if it's a face to face meeting, keep the group small to avoid overwhelming her if my theory is correct and she is an introvert. The group chat is a good alternative and would work well, IMO. – Steve-o169 Apr 10 at 23:24
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    Are you suggesting a meeting - about how to have meetings? Should this have a pre-meeting meeting to ensure everyone has had a chance to consider it? :) – UKMonkey Apr 11 at 11:52
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As I commented, this extreme tiredness is likely not caused by the meeting or the length of the meeting, but more a result of socializing with a large number of people at one time. In my unprofessional but first-hand experience, your co-worker seems to be suffering from what some call an "introvert hangover". That is, she simply needs a period of time to recharge after interacting with a group of people. I've had very similar experiences where I'll be having a great time at a party and at some point, I'll just crash and need to find a quiet place to recharge.

As far as solving your issue, perhaps a good idea would be to schedule the meeting for a time period directly before a lunch break. This way, your co-worker can leave the premises, have an hour or so to recharge, and rebuild her stamina for the remainder of the day. Even better, schedule the meeting as the last item on the agenda for a given day. That way, she has the opportunity to remain active and engaged all day long and can leave the office afterwards to recover at home.

Another potential solution (assuming she doesn't need to contribute), would be video conferencing or even just recording the meeting for her to view at another time. If she needs to contribute, perhaps something like a Google Doc could be used to keep notes of the meeting and she can contribute as necessary by updating the document.

In other words, the best way to avoid her "hangover" would be to remove her from the bulk of the meeting or schedule it at such a time with a break built-in immediately afterwards.

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    As an introvert myself - if the longer meetings seem "better", then that is probably just a sign that the colleague is zoning-out and ignoring the later parts of the meeting, and doing some "recharge" in there. – Chronocidal Apr 11 at 7:49
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    We already moved our daily status updates to text format on Slack. Mostly because we often work from home and start at different hours, so an asynchronous text-based meeting seemed natural. And I guess it helps with this problem too. Your other ideas are very interesting, I'll suggest them during our next retrospective. – user102582 Apr 11 at 11:53
11

TLDR: Make sure you have fresh air in your marathon meetings!

Buy an air quality indicator and take that into the room. Vent the room when it indicates too low O2 or too high CO2 levels. Meetings are often held in crowded rooms and people often forget or don't dare to open windows during the meeting. Insufficient air supply/over-saturation with CO2 makes you tired. It might just be that your colleague is more susceptible to it than the rest of you.

6

I'd have a think about what the meetings are bringing, not just to this staff member, but the team as a whole. It's possible that absolutely everything being brought up can only be handled in face-to-face meetings, but in my experience, unlikely. For example, next time you're in a meeting, keep track of how often one person asks a question, and another person answers some variant of "I need to go away and look into that". Every time that happens, it would've been better handled when the person asking first needed the information (instead of waiting to be in the meeting), and the person supplying it was in an environment where they could get it (instead of waiting to be out of the meeting).

So if the meetings include updates on how certain projects or tasks are progressing, why not push those into a project-management system, and monitor them that way, getting instant updates when you need rather than hanging on for some arbitrary time? If it's basic changes or additions to procedures that everyone needs to know, could an email fit the bill? If it's for general discussion or knowledge-sharing, what about forums, chatrooms or wikis? Think about what your meetings are actually being used for, and then think about ways those things could be handled another way.

One key to all of these ideas is making sure that, if you implement systems like these, you understand that it's a cultural change you'll need to guide your staff through. At my organisation, we brought in a company-wide social networking system, but no guidance was given on how to use it; how formal do people need to be? Can all staff post, or just those in management? Are there limits on what can/should be discussed? How acceptable is it to spend time on it rather than directly working on tasks? Because of the lack of answers to those questions, most staff were too afraid to actually use it, so what could've been an excellent cross-team communication tool has been mostly ignored, for want of a memo.

3

Where I work at, also in software development, we started reaching critical mass with meetings where it was common for team velocity to be reduced by 25-30 percent or more due to all the meetings that people were expected to attend. There were also numerous complaints about the length of meetings and perceived lack of value. As an introvert myself, I found them to be a minor form of torture. However, there has been a very positive cultural shift in the past couple of years and feedback has been listened to, with some of the following steps being taken:

  1. Determining the value of the meeting and cancelling them accordingly. Generally, the team is often asked if they think we need to have a scheduled meeting. If not, the meeting is cancelled. This is the opposite of most places, which tend to err on the side of having a meeting, regardless of perceived utility.

  2. Ending the meeting when the purpose for the meeting has been met. In other words, if it's an hour long meeting and the topic has been addressed in forty five minutes, we get the other fifteen minutes back. Also, set strict time limits on the meeting. If it's supposed to run for an hour, then it's only an hour. Too often, people use it as a gripe session or trying to appear important by talking a lot while not saying much. A hard stop tends to minimize that behavior.

  3. Inviting the relevant people to the meeting. As pointed out above, not everyone needs to be at the meeting. If I'm not actively working on a feature, but someone else is, I'm not going to be in the meetings with stakeholders for that feature. This limits knowledge sharing, but also removes an impediment for other work. I'm free to attend if I want, but it's not strictly necessary.

  4. More perceived value for participants. No sane person wants to be put in a chair and have someone talk at them for several hours. Sharing in responsibility for the planning, taking turns running the meeting, and feeling like there is a sense of empowerment by their participation, are all ways to build perceived value to a person and give them more "buy in."

  5. Working ahead at one's own pace. Work can often be divvied up ahead of the meeting, particularly planning meetings, and people can do this at their own pace in between other work.

  6. More shorter meetings. Done properly, these can be perceived as a break from the workday. If a person puts in a good few hours of work, a half hour meeting is actually a good rest period. If people commonly don't eat out for lunch, you can have it over lunch and make a social occasion out of it. (just allow for the downtime that people would normally use during lunch for the purposes of conducting personal business, taking a walk, or just getting a break) This needs to be carefully balanced and not done on a whim, as it takes a significant amount of time for knowledge workers to regain focus and get productive again.

The obvious issue here is that all of these require a cultural shift that isn't always easy to attain. However, given time and feedback, the changes will actually result in better work and more energy on the team.

2

I feel that this would not have one right answer. So this serves to add some additional points.

I agree with this answer. The key is to continue to look for a solution/s by trying different things. This should and can very well be an on-going process, and should involve all affected co-workers for fairness' sake.

Some points:

  1. If any co-worker is introverted, it will probably be extremely stressful to them to constantly stand up for themselves to a group, and jerk others around by changing their routine, then changing it again if it doesn't work... Having an understanding and non-judging single person (you? the meeting organiser?) that can serve as a (trusted!) one-on-one contact as well as mediator looking out for a compromise that takes everyone's well-being into consideration, might help a lot. That person could also let the team know that it is completely OK to come up with a solution that is later found not to work (multiple times) - this will still be informative of what not to continue using.

  2. Not knowing of a medical or physical condition does not rule one out. Examples: low vitamin D, iron, blood sugar or various other biochemicals, low oxygen levels in the meeting room, slowed blood circulation due to seating or inactivity. Everyone's body works differently. Unfortunately it usually takes a lot of time (and money) spend in doctors' offices to pinpoint, if at all. The most workable might be the above-mentioned constant experimenting.

  3. Psychological stress due to anxiety or introversion does have real physical effects (e.g., stress triggering cortisol release, and increased cortisol levels depleting blood sugar). This might not always be understood sufficiently be people not experiencing it, but (to repeat) it is real, and it differs from person to person.

  4. Some people are more susceptible to sense stimuli (sounds, lights, textures, temperature), often causing stress (see previous point). This often (but not in all cases) goes hand in hand with genetics or rare diseases, which usually go undiagnosed for years.

  5. My personal anecdote says that taking up a strenuous exercise regimen, as well as striving to improve my general health via a healthy diet and healthy sleep routine, has in general improved my energy levels, concentration and tolerance to stress. I am also introverted and thus make a point of interacting with others on a friendly basis (also a form of "exercise"). Over time this has also helped moving my outlook slightly and making interactions less stressful. (I still enjoy solitary recharge times.)

  6. Still on the personal level, I feel that having a "mission focus" at work instead of a "people focus", thus seeing co-workers as mutual support working towards the same goal, rather than nuisances or competitors, also help to remove some of the anxiety. But perhaps paradoxically, an important factor in facilitating this is that I feel respected and cared for as a human by my co-workers and managers, and that I may/can likewise respect and care for their human well-being.

2

Edit: This answer assumes she is mostly inactive during the meetings. As it turned out, she appears to be quite active and engaged. So let's take it as an answer to an alternative scenario.

Boredom

The reason why she is bored is likely because she is highly intelligent (high IQ). As such, she needs more cognitive stimulation to prevent boredom. A meeting in which she is trapped for 2-4 hours (or even just 1h) and where she is unable to do anything against her boredom wears her out (in such an environment methods would be too ineffective, disturbing and/or inappropriate).

The factor of introversion may also play a role in that, that one is covered in other answers though. My assumption is that it merely leads to her being more passive and thus further contributing to her boredom.

Solution

Just let her participate when there is a reason for her to be there. And then just for the duration necessary, not for the entire meeting. If she happens to miss something relevant, just tell her about it afterwards.

I wonder why you guys are torturing each other in the first place with your meetings so much. I bet others are bothered by it as well, it just happens to hit her the hardest. Ask yourselves: Is it really worth it - that often for that long?

  • We did collect several meetings into one block, but we still do small breaks between them… say, 2-3 breaks of 15 mins, depending on how much the whole block takes. Maybe that's not enough? – user102582 Apr 11 at 11:26
  • @user102582 - I don't think that breaks help at all. Usually activities require a continuous block of mostly uninterrupted time, which is likely her usual work. The breaks may just increase the total duration of the meetings without providing any option to effectively alleviate the issue of boredom. See it like this: Each minute of too low cognitive stimulation will add up over the course of a day, and even if the breaks would be effective, it just means 'n' minutes of non-accumulation. You could ask her if this makes sense and if boredom is the issue at all, I am curious to know her answer. – Battle Apr 11 at 12:00
  • Why is this getting downvoted without any comment? – Battle Apr 11 at 13:08
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    I'm not one of the downvoters, but I think the details given by the asker provide sufficient evidence that she is not simply "bored" -- she is actively engaged in the meeting. Thus, this answer isn't really a good one, given the scenario. – Steve-o169 Apr 11 at 13:49
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    @Battle From one of OP's comments on an answer: "And as she usually actively participates in most of the discussions during this block, often playing a role of a helpful advisor for other developers, her presence would be difficult to reduce." – Steve-o169 Apr 11 at 14:10
1

Let me give you two pieces of advise:

  1. General meeting problems : meetings have the tendency of becoming too long. This can be solved by preparing your meetings (everybody who has something to say, needs to prepare him- of herself on what to say).
    In top of this, somebody must be assigned to check if the subjects are not being elaborated too much for the sake of the meeting (e.g. the details of a configuration for testing a bugfix are only relevant for the developer and the tester, not for the whole team).
  2. For that one particular person : if you become tired during a meeting, bring a drink (preferably a cold one, so you can enjoy it during the whole meeting), and have some sips during the meeting.

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