The Pain of the Never-Ending Work Check-In
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The Pain of the Never-Ending Work Check-In

Meeting burnout got worse in the pandemic; hybrid schedules could make things even messier

By RACHEL FEINTZEIG
Tue, Jul 20, 2021 10:25amGrey Clock 4 min

Brenda Fernandez has tried blocking off time on her calendar. She’s tried to keep conversations focused. She still can’t escape them.

“Everything becomes a meeting,” the 29-year-old Miami copywriter told me. Her overwhelming feeling? “This could have been an email.”

Then she excused herself to hop on a 7 p.m. call.

We are deep in the age of the never-ending check-in. Meetings have gotten shorter during the pandemic, according to researchers, with one paper finding the average length dropped 20% in late 2020.

But meetings are multiplying. There’s the 25-minute client touch-base, the general life catch-up with your manager, the bite-size performance feedback session, the meeting to prep for the meeting.

“It just never ends,” Ms. Fernandez says.

We were already on the road to meeting burnout before the pandemic. A shift from hierarchical organisations to de-layered, matrixed ones means more bosses and teams to coordinate with. Increasingly global business means invites for times when we’d normally be in bed. Caroline Kim Oh, a leadership coach based near New York City, says that in recent years, many of her clients have started feeling like meetings are just something that happens to them.

“You have no control over your workday,” she says. “They’re just popping up.”

Working from home and living through a crisis seems to have made it worse. In an April survey from meeting scheduling tool Doodle, 69% of 1,000 full-time remote workers said their meetings had increased since the pandemic started, with 56% reporting that their swamped calendars were hurting their job performance.

Constant check-ins have become some bosses’ version of micromanaging, a way to keep tabs on workers they don’t trust. Coordination that used to happen by swivelling your chair or walking across the hall now requires extra formality and time for everyone still spread out across home offices. Plus, there’s the sense that empathetic leaders should stay in touch during moments of transition, whether that’s as the world was shutting down last year or as we head back to headquarters now.

The message to managers is often, “Hey, check in with your employees. See if they’re OK. Care more,” says Ms. Kim Oh, the executive coach. Sometimes caring more means saving a worker from one more Zoom, she adds.

What happens next? If we all go back to work five days a week, we might return to those efficient, in-person check-ins, says Raffaella Sadun, a Harvard Business School professor who has studied meeting loads before and during the pandemic. But organisations testing a hybrid set-up should brace for a mess.

There are now two kinds of interactions to manage, Dr. Sadun says. “One is at the water cooler, one is on Zoom.” If you make a decision with the colleague who sits one desk over, you still need to dial up the teammate who spends Tuesdays at home to make sure she’s on board. Suddenly, all Zoom all the time doesn’t seem so bad.

Nonetheless, many employees are optimistic that things will get better. In the Doodle survey, 70% of respondents said they hope to have fewer meetings once they head back to the office. Angela Nguyen, an independent healthcare consultant in Boston, predicts workers will return to the good old days of back-to-back meetings, as opposed to the double- and triple-booked schedules she sees now.

“It’s not sustainable,” she says. She has watched clients attempt to divide and conquer, hopping on for 15-minute cameos or dispatching various team members to different video calls. Then they sync up after—with another meeting.

Did we all just get used to having our professional contacts a click away for all these months, without travel time or personal plans as a natural boundary? Does loneliness play a role?

“I wonder if people just want to connect, just to chat, because they don’t have an office to go to,” Ms. Nguyen says.

Overall, employees have been putting in five to eight additional working hours a week during the pandemic, says Rob Cross, a professor of global leadership at Babson College and author of the forthcoming book, “Beyond Collaboration Overload.” More meetings mean more tasks to catch up on at day’s end, when we finally have a minute to take a look at our ballooning to-do lists. Plus, toggling between more, shorter meetings is hugely taxing on our brains.

“They’ve created work that they don’t see,” Dr. Cross says of organizations. “That’s crushing people.”

Becca Apfelstadt’s team at marketing agency Treetree headed back to their Columbus, Ohio, office last month for two half-days a week. The CEO’s verdict on meetings is: They’re no worse than before. Early in the pandemic, workers complained they didn’t have time to grab water or use the bathroom. “It was like, we won’t survive if we can’t figure this out,” she says.

The company moved some communication to messaging services such as Slack, trimmed meetings to 20 or 50 minutes and encouraged walk-and-talk conversations, using AI services to take notes.

The efforts helped, Ms. Apfelstadt says, and so far the shift to hybrid hasn’t created any meeting creep. Still, there have been hiccups. The other week, she spotted three employees crammed onto a couch together, attempting to share one laptop camera for a video conference.

“They just had some tiny person in the middle, and she was just getting smushed any time someone would try to make a point,” Ms. Apfelstadt says. She recommends companies keep the formal meeting schedule light as they transition back and lean into serendipitous conversations around the office.

Still, not everyone is craving those. Seanna Thompson, a physician and administrator with New York’s Mount Sinai Health System, has loved her remote meetings over the last year-plus. The dread comes when she thinks about returning to those ad-hoc, meandering check-ins by the water cooler.

“I’m like, oh God, that just derailed my whole day,” she says. “I don’t think what we were doing before was all that efficient.”

Reprinted by permission of The Wall Street Journal, Copyright 2021 Dow Jones & Company. Inc. All Rights Reserved Worldwide. Original date of publication: July 19, 2021



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Is ‘Rizz’ the Secret to Getting Ahead at Work?

Whether you call it charisma, charm or magnetism, some people seem like naturals. Good news: It can be learned.

By Rachel Feintzeig
Mon, Jul 22, 2024 4 min

Great leaders have it. Gen Z has a new word for it. Can the rest of us learn it?

Charisma—or rizz , as current teenage slang has anointed it—can feel like an ephemeral gift some are just born with. The chosen among us network and chitchat, exuding warmth as they effortlessly hold court. Then there’s everyone else, agonising over exclamation points in email drafts and internally replaying that joke they made in the meeting, wondering if it hit.

“Well, this is awkward,” Mike Rizzo, the head of a community for marketing operations professionals, says of rizz being crowned 2023 word of the year by the publisher of the Oxford English Dictionary. It’s so close to his last name, but so far from how he sees himself. He sometimes gets sweaty palms before hosting webinars.

Who could blame us for obsessing over charisma, or lack thereof? It can lubricate social interactions, win us friends, and score promotions . It’s also possible to cultivate, assures Charles Duhigg, the author of a book about people he dubs super communicators.

At its heart, charisma isn’t about some grand performance. It’s a state we elicit in other people, Duhigg says. It’s about fostering connection and making our conversation partners feel they’re the charming—or interesting or funny—ones.

The key is to ask deeper, though not prying, questions that invite meaningful and revealing responses, Duhigg says. And match the other person’s vibes. Maybe they want to talk about emotions, the joy they felt watching their kid graduate from high school last weekend. Or maybe they’re just after straight-up logistics and want you to quickly tell them exactly how the team is going to turn around that presentation by tomorrow.

You might be hired into a company for your skill set, Duhigg says, but your ability to communicate and earn people’s trust propels you up the ladder: “That is leadership.”

Approachable and relatable

In reporting this column, I was surprised to hear many executives and professionals I find breezily confident and pleasantly chatty confess it wasn’t something that came naturally. They had to work on it.

Dave MacLennan , who served as chief executive of agricultural giant Cargill for nearly a decade, started by leaning into a nickname: DMac, first bestowed upon him in a C-suite meeting where half the executives were named Dave.

He liked the informality of it. The further he ascended up the corporate hierarchy, the more he strove to be approachable and relatable.

Employees “need a reason to follow you,” he says. “One of the reasons they’re going to follow you is that they feel they know you.”

He makes a point to remember the details and dates of people’s lives, such as colleagues’ birthdays. After making his acquaintance, in a meeting years ago at The Wall Street Journal’s offices, I was shocked to receive an email from his address months later. Subject line: You , a heading so compelling I still recall it. He went on to say he remembered I was due with my first child any day now and just wanted to say good luck.

“So many people say, ‘Oh, I don’t have a good memory for that,’” he says. Prioritise remembering, making notes on your phone if you need, he says.

Now a board member and an executive coach, MacLennan sent hundreds of handwritten notes during his tenure. He’d reach out to midlevel managers who’d just gotten a promotion, or engineers who showed him around meat-processing plants. He’d pen words of thanks or congratulations. And he’d address the envelopes himself.

“Your handwriting is a very personal thing about you,” he says. “Think about it. Twenty seconds. It makes such an impact.”

Everyone’s important

Doling out your charm selectively will backfire, says Carla Harris , a Morgan Stanley executive. She chats up the woman cleaning the office, the receptionist at her doctor’s, the guy waiting alongside her for the elevator.

“Don’t be confused,” she tells young bankers. Executive assistants are often the most powerful people in the building, and you never know how someone can help—or hurt—you down the line.

Harris once spent a year mentoring a junior worker in another department, not expecting anything in return. One day, Harris randomly mentioned she faced an uphill battle in meeting with a new client. Oh!, the 24-year-old said. Turns out, the client was her friend. She made the call right there, setting up Harris for a work win.

In the office, stop staring at your phone, Harris advises, and notice the people around you. Ask for their names. Push yourself to start a conversation with three random people every day.

Charisma for introverts

You can’t will yourself to be a bubbly extrovert, but you can find your own brand of charisma, says Vanessa Van Edwards, a communications trainer and author of a book about charismatic communication.

For introverted clients, she recommends using nonverbal cues. A slow triple nod shows people you’re listening. Placing your hands in the steeple position, together and facing up, denotes that you’re calm and present.

Try coming up with one question you’re known for. Not a canned, hokey ice-breaker, but something casual and simple that reflects your actual interests. One of her clients, a bookish executive struggling with uncomfortable, halting starts to his meetings, began kicking things off by asking “Reading anything good?”

Embracing your stumbles

Charisma starts with confidence. It’s not that captivating people don’t occasionally mispronounce a word or spill their coffee, says Henna Pryor, who wrote a book about embracing awkwardness at work. They just have a faster comeback rate than the rest of us. They call out the stumble instead of trying to hide it, make a small joke, and move on.

Being perfectly polished all the time is not only exhausting, it’s impossible. We know this, which is why appearing flawless can come off as fake. We like people who seem human, Pryor says.

Our most admired colleagues are often the ones who are good at their jobs and can laugh at themselves too, who occasionally trip or flub just like us.

“It creates this little moment of warmth,” she says, “that we actually find almost like a relief.”

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