A remote meeting held over videocall.
Image: ST.art/Adobe Stock

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, managers have been struggling with the question about how to manage remote employees and whether a remote or hybrid work situation is sustainable. Some evidence has shown that as the physical office has been replaced by the home, kitchen and coffee shop, employees have been disengaging.

A new study by the Harvard Business Review challenges this assumption, showing that while remote meetings have changed over time, remote employees are still engaged.

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Andrew Brodsky, assistant professor of management at the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin, teamed up with Mike Tolliver, director of product management at Vyopta, to look at whether remote employees are still engaged over time. The team predicted that disengagement could be seen through a decrease in meetings — remote or in person.

To understand the way remote meetings are impacting engagement, they collected metadata from Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Webex with video on or off from 10 big global companies, including seven Fortune 500 firms, across a range of industries.

In total, there were 48 million meetings, involving more than half a million employees. The meetings took place between a six-week window in the spring of 2020 from April to mid-May and the same six weeks again during both of the following two years. According to the report, each company was using at least one meeting software tool frequently from the start, with the majority (71%) using Microsoft Teams.

Tolliver cautions that the data shows averages, and things can vary a great deal at an individual level. Using it to monitor trends could be the best way to look at it.

“One example could be, ‘the marketing team in Denver has engaged in 30% fewer 1:1s this quarter compared to last, let’s check in with them.’ Probably the most important thing for managers to do is engage in effective 1:1s with their team. If someone is disengaging, effective 1:1 communication will help managers get to the bottom of it and hopefully work with the employee to change course,” said Tolliver.

The data is limited, in that it didn’t integrate in-person interactions, which the report says suggests that it only underestimates the total number of meetings.

Top 4 tips to keep remote employees engaged

1. Shift to smaller, shorter meetings

Remote meetings have gotten shorter by 25%, going from 43 minutes on average per meeting in 2020 to slightly over 30 minutes in 2022. However, the size of participants decreased — on average, in 2020 there were 20 participants per meeting, whereas there were only 10 per meeting in 2022.

Tolliver sees the increase in overall meetings as mainly due to more 1:1 meetings, of which there were 17% in 2020 and 42% in 2022.

“One-on-one meetings are, by nature, between only two people and tend to be relatively short,” Tolliver said.

Spontaneous, one-on-one meetings rose from 17% in 2020 to 66% in 2022; however, even small (3-15 people) and large (16+) meetings trended in this direction, when factoring out this variable.

Tolliver believes the trend is a result of leaders “feeling out remote work,” and realizing that “smaller, shorter meetings are likely more effective.”

2. Be wary of too many meetings

The number of meetings has increased. The researchers discovered 60% more remote meetings per employee in 2022 than in 2020.

Even with a return to a physical office, there has been an uptick in remote meetings. Tolliver views over-filled calendars as an “emergent problem that’s no one’s fault and often gets overlooked, but the result can be long days, taking work home after hours, increased stress, and even higher rates of errors.” Too much scheduling can result in burnout and attrition, he said.

3. Remember that video is not always the best option

Many managers default to video-on meetings, but that’s not always the best option. According to Tolliver, “different meeting modalities have pros and cons in terms of perceived authenticity and how a message is received.” He urges teams to explore the pros and cons and “allow for individual decisions.”

4. Use collaboration data

We’ve got a relatively short window — since March 2020 — that this type of data has been mined, so there’s still more to learn. Tolliver believes that if things like survey analysis, engagement and other qualitative feedback could be integrated with this kind of data, it could provide even more information for managers to improve meetings and employee engagement.

“Eventually, collaboration data will be a vital component of any organization’s business intelligence suite,” he said.

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