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When the stay-at-home orders started two years ago, virtual meetings were a way of keeping connected and even an opportunity to get better acquainted with clients and colleagues.alvarez/iStockPhoto / Getty Images

At the onset of the pandemic, virtual meetings kept many businesses in business, making it not only possible but easy for employees to work from home. Maybe too easy.

Soon the term “Zoom fatigue” entered the corporate lexicon.

“I think we got too meeting-centric, spending hours in meetings,” says Amy Fell, who leads the corporate training branch of the BCIT School of Business and Media in Burnaby.

“That was how people could tell you’re working because, well, look at my schedule, I’m busier than I ever have been. I’ve got meetings all day. But are you producing anything? Are you actually doing any work that’s getting us closer to our goals or implementing something?”

When the stay-at-home orders started two years ago, virtual meetings were a way of keeping connected and even an opportunity to get better acquainted with clients and colleagues – including their roommates, spouses, kids and dogs.

“I think many people felt fortunate to be able to have that option when we were confined to our four walls. It was like you could go into your screen and still be with people,” she says.

But online meetings have limitations and may be making workers less productive.

For example, body language and other types of non-verbal communication can be hard to see in virtual settings. People meeting online are also more prone to distractions, including messages and e-mails that continue to roll in on their screens in the background. Add other popular platforms like Slack, What’s App, WeChat, group texts and other online tools and the workday can be an onslaught of online collaboration leaving little time to actually work.

As we enter the hybrid workplace era, companies will have to make better use of technology to boost collaboration, Ms. Fell says, while also reconsidering the value of traditional meetings – whether in person or online.

“I think that we just need to step back and think, exactly why do we need to meet? Who needs to be there? Those simple questions will make it really clear whether or not this is an e-mail or a telephone call,” Ms. Fell says.

“It’s being more thoughtful about what it is you’re trying to convey or why it is you’re trying to bring people together and then plan accordingly.”

McKinsey & Co. research shows most executives believe they spend too much time in pointless interactions and plan to make changes in the future to meeting structures in their organizations.

The research found that decisions can be made faster by holding fewer meetings with fewer decision-makers present.

“The default is we set up a Zoom. Why? Because we can,” says John Parsons, a partner with McKinsey based in Calgary.

“Hybrid meetings are the worst,” he adds. “You’ve got six people in a room together; you’ve got three people by video with cameras on and two people by phone.”

Business leaders need to be intentional and thoughtful about the best interaction to meet the goal, Mr. Parsons says.

In other words, maybe that meeting could have been replaced with a group Slack chat.

A lot of meetings could also just be more engaging and productive.

At Zoom Video Communication Inc., the platform that’s become a staple for many businesses during the pandemic, the focus has been on bringing the conference room experience to online interactions, says Jeff Smith, head of Zoom Rooms.

He says the technology will continue to evolve with the workplace.

“That constant need to assess the situation, to be flexible, to allow workers to be flexible, that’s all part of a new normal for everyone,” Mr. Smith says.

For instance, he says both the physical and virtual space will need to be more inclusive in the new hybrid workplace, in particular to ensure that employees attending remotely don’t feel at a disadvantage.

Mr. Smith says Zoom is working on new features to help bridge the virtual gap, including an artificial intelligence-driven tool to enable a more inclusive video conferencing experience.

The platform is also developing collaboration tools to help groups work together without necessarily meeting.

“You don’t have to call a meeting. You can organize and get prepared for the times when you really need focused attention,” he says. “It makes those meetings more effective.”

The hybrid work force is an opportunity to reimagine not just meetings but the way we work, says Aaron De Smet, a senior partner at McKinsey in New Jersey.

That means reorienting how we measure productivity, he says.

“We’ve been default mode for too long: We used to default to in-person meetings and then we defaulted to Zoom,” he says.

“We’re going to have to lean in and learn. We’re going to have to experiment and try things out.”