Can remote work truly be a replacement for in-office work? Many organizations are betting their future on their answer to this question. Some are gambling on remote work, while others are insisting on a return to office. Although there has been significant research on the pros and cons of remote work, many questions still remain unanswered.
In particular, one of the major driving arguments for bringing employees back to the workplace is that remote workers are becoming less engaged over time, resulting in less frequent and spontaneous interactions with colleagues that are vital for both organizational performance and innovation.
To understand the degree to which this kind of employee engagement — and, relatedly, how the frequency of remote meetings have changed since the start of Covid-19 — one of us (Andrew) partnered with the other (Mike) at Vyopta, a software company that provides remote meeting and collaboration analytics for large organizations. (In our research, “remote meetings” refers to meetings that used remote video/audio conferencing software, meaning that at least one person was remote from the others in attendance.) Given the anecdotal evidence of workers recently disengaging or quiet quitting, we had originally predicted that one of the easiest ways to observe this effect would be a continual decrease in the number of times remote or hybrid coworkers were engaging — or meeting — with each other. However, we found quite the opposite.
How Remote Collaboration Has Changed
To more deeply explore the nature of how remote collaboration is changing over time, we gathered metadata from all Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and WebEx meetings (involving webcams on and/or off) from 10 large global organizations (seven of which are Fortune 500 firms) spanning a variety of fields, including technology, health care, energy, and financial services. Specifically, we compared six-week snapshots of raw meeting counts from April through mid-May in 2020 following the Covid-19 lockdowns, and the same set of six weeks in 2021 and 2022. All of these organizations had at least one of the meeting software tools heavily utilized at the start of this time period, with Microsoft Teams being the most common across all three years (representing 71% of the meetings across the data). This dataset resulted in a total of more than 48 million meetings for more than half a million employees.
Our analysis of this data uncovered five major ways remote meetings have changed since the pandemic first forced all employees to work remotely:
Remote meetings have become more frequent.
We found that there were 60% more remote meetings per employee in 2022 as compared to 2020 (a change of an average of five to eight meetings per week per employee).
Remote meetings have become shorter.
Since 2020, remote meetings have decreased in length by 25% from an average of 43 minutes per meeting in 2020 to 33 minutes in 2022.
Remote meetings have become smaller.
We saw the average number of participants per meeting drop by half from an average of 20 participants per meeting in 2020 to 10 participants per meeting in 2022. This change was driven predominately by the increase in the proportion of one-on-one meetings rather than a decrease in the size of group meetings. Specifically, in 2020, 17% of meetings were one-on-one, but in 2022, 42% of meeting were one-on-one. These individual meetings also averaged 22 minutes in length in 2022 as compared to group meetings, which average 40 minutes in 2022.
Remote meetings have become more spontaneous.
A unique aspect of our data is that we were able to see which meetings were scheduled via calendar invites and which meetings were spontaneous (e.g., via the “Meet Now” function in Microsoft Teams). In 2020, only 17% of one-on-one meetings were unscheduled, but in 2022, 66% of one-on-one meetings were unscheduled. Furthermore, the growth in one-on-one meetings between 2020 and 2022 was almost solely due to the increase in unscheduled meetings (whereas scheduled meetings remained relatively constant).
Workers who left their organization reversed the trends.
In each year, approximately 6% of the employees in our data had at least one meeting during the period we focused on and left the organization at some point after those six weeks (either due to being fired or quitting). We saw that “leavers” attended substantially fewer meetings. We observed this trend most clearly in that “leavers” had 67% fewer one-on-one spontaneous meetings, though they also had 22% fewer scheduled one-on-one meetings and 20% fewer group meetings.
The Big Picture — and Some Limitations
The combination of these findings presents an interesting picture: not that remote workers seem to be becoming less engaged, but rather—at least with respect to meetings — they are becoming more engaged with their colleagues.
This data also suggests that remote interactions are shifting to more closely mirror in-person interactions. Whereas there have been substantial concerns that employees are missing out on the casual and spontaneous rich interactions that happen in-person, these findings indicate that remote employees may be beginning to compensate for the loss of those interactions by increasingly having impromptu meetings remotely.
There are limitations to this data, however. For one, we weren’t able to collect data on meetings or interactions that occurred in-person, as some employees returned full-time or hybrid to the office post-2020. However, this limitation would suggest that our findings likely even underestimated the full extent of the increase in number of meetings. This is because in 2020, for these companies, meetings could only be held remotely. Yet in 2022, even after some employees in our dataset returned to the office (i.e., there should be fewer remote meetings), we still found an increase in the number of remote meetings per employee.
Additionally, although our data paints a clear picture of remote collaboration trends, it is important to note that because we don’t have data beyond meetings themselves, it is possible that there may be deficits in other areas. For instance, although spontaneous collaboration is beneficial to organizations, employees may be engaging in more meetings as a means of “showing” they are working rather than actually working. This need for performative face time is not novel to remote work. Prior to Covid-19, office workers, at times when they had no work available to do, still felt forced to spend hours in the office idly each week pretending to be busy for purposes of appearances.
Although we cannot disprove this counterargument with complete certainty, our data would suggest that the increase of meetings was at least in part due to an increase in engagement rather than fully an increasing need to pretend to be working. That is because the most disengaged employees in our data (i.e., those who would soon leave the organization) — those who would be the ones expected to “fake it” — had fewer rather than more meetings. Alternatively, those employees who would stick around, and thus are more likely to be engaged, were the ones who had a greater number of meetings.
Recommendations for Meetings
At least from the perspective of spontaneous individual remote meetings, it would appear that employees have gotten more — not less — engaged over the past three years since remote work became the norm for many knowledge workers. With that in mind, there are three key actionable insights from this data:
Encourage synchronous work schedules for remote workers.
In order for spontaneous remote meetings to happen, some degree of shared work time needs to occur between employees, even if they are in different time zones. That’s not to say that employees in Asia should be forced to work at 3 am to be aligned with their American colleagues, as there can be severe costs (both for recruitment and performance) for forcing employees to work at odd hours. Rather, where reasonable, aim to encourage employees to work reasonable overlapping hours. Although employees may no longer be in the same “space” as they work outside the office, at least being in the same “time” can enable many of the same interactions. To this point, research shows that being synchronous with one’s teammates can increase work quality through means such as improved information-sharing.
Yet, it is important to note that there is a cost to synchronicity and meetings, as they can be time sinks. And in fact, the same research also shows that synchronicity can decrease work quantity. As a result, if you are looking to maximize the balance of work quality and quantity, allowing for a combination of both synchronous and asynchronous work is vital.
Make it easier for people to meet.
Beyond just aligning employee work hours, finding other ways to decrease the effort and strain required for meetings would also be beneficial. For instance, there has been significant recent work showing that frequent video meetings can lead to Zoom fatigue; a key piece of advice that has emerged is that allowing employees to turn off their cameras can reduce video conferencing fatigue. Additionally, audio-only interactions have shown a host of other surprising, positive benefits, which include increasing perceptions of communicator authenticity and building stronger social bonds between communication partners.
The takeaway from this existing research is not that video calls are a waste, as sometimes the extra “richness” of video can be invaluable. Rather, instead of the default meeting option being to leave cameras on, and only to turn cameras off when they are unambiguously not needed, the default option could be to leave cameras off, and only turn them on when there is a clear benefit that outweighs the costs.
Try to reengage employees who are disengaging.
Our data shows that employees who are becoming more disengaged from their organization are also a part of substantially fewer meetings. Given the difficulties in recruiting and training new talent, there is a substantial benefit to trying to re-engage these workers. To identify these workers, there are now many tools, both built directly within communication platforms or via third-party software to help collect this kind of data at scale.
Importantly, your first step should not be to simply force them to attend more meetings. Instead, have open conversations to first find out if, and then why, the employee is disengaged — whether it be because of factors such as they are bored by their work or feel they are underpaid. Then, try to resolve the underlying issues. As a result, rather than using data as a tool to for invasive micro-management, which can destroy employee trust, it can be leveraged as a positive means to improve employees’ experiences at work.
When thinking about this at an individual level, it is also important to consider how your employees’ meeting patterns have changed over time. If you were to simply look at differences in the number of meetings between your employees (rather than broader trends), for example, you may accidentally misclassify an employee as disengaging, when there could be an alternative explanation (the employee’s role may not require as many meetings as others, or they might just be introverted).
If you don’t want to (or can’t) collect employee meeting data, a simpler approach is to encourage managers to be open with employees about the degree to which they are feeling connected to — or disconnected from — their coworkers more regularly. Beyond just being able to identify those employees who are at risk of leaving due to disengagement, this kind of manager openness has been tied to a host of benefits including increasing employee motivation and innovation.
. . .
The findings from this research study don’t provide all of the answers, as much more data is needed to fully understand all the implications of remote work. However, they do challenge the idea of what may be “lost” about the in-office experience. In fact, employees seem to have adapted over time with regard to remote meetings — they are increasingly efficient (shorter), more frequent, and more spontaneous. This suggests that remote workers seem to be compensating for losses due to working outside the office and are engaging in behaviors that are more and more similar to office work.
So, try to challenge your assumptions about remote work. There may be ways to realize the benefits of allowing employees the option while avoiding some of the costs.