This is the third and final instalment in my series about how badly we’re botching the return-to-office transition. This time, I’m putting leaders in the crosshairs and imploring you to reset our workdays, especially the unrelenting torrent of meetings and emails, if you expect people to return to the office.

If you missed the first two installments, read the return to office fight is about control, not productivity and we should be fighting for community before you dive in here.

If you don’t have the time or inclination to do that, the crux is that:

1) managers need to appreciate the sacrifices involved in returning to the office and provide as much flexibility as possible so that employees can tailor their work experience to their needs; and

2) Employees must think beyond their short-term comfort and individual targets and consider their obligation to contribute to strong team, organizational, and civic communities.

We Need Relief

To this point, I’ve been doling out advice about what managers and employees need to do differently in the pitched battle over returning to the office. Now it’s time for leaders to take ownership of the mess that is our current work week. Employees need relief if they’re going to embrace a return to the office.

Too Many Meetings

According to research by Microsoft, employees are sitting through 250% more hours in meetings now than before the pandemic. showed a similarly dramatic increase, with the average post-pandemic week packed with 21.5 hours of meetings compared with 14.2 hours before Covid.

If we add the email burden, the picture gets more alarming. Research by Linda Duxbury and Andre Lanctot of Carleton University suggests that the average knowledge worker spends 25% of their workweek doing email and another 5.3 hours responding to email outside work hours. McKinsey data puts the percentage of the week dedicated to email at 28%.

Add it up; twenty-one hours of meetings and another 12 doing email. That’s 33 hours of your work week gone leaving only 7 hours to think, read, research, coach, ponder, reflect, write, analyze, and prepare—and that’s only if you forego time to eat or pee (which helps in the short-term, but not the long term).

Reinvesting Saved Time

Data suggest that remote workers save an average of 72 minutes daily by not having to go to the office. (Most of that is the 55 minutes saved by not commuting. I suspect the other efficiencies come from a combination of not having to find the matching lid for the container you packed your salad in, being able to wear the same pants five days in a row, and not having to make the back of your hair look presentable).

Those who work remotely then reinvest 40% of those savings into work (while 34% goes to leisure and 11% to family). Without the commute, that adds up to half an hour more every day for your employees to respond to emails or do tasks that didn’t get done during the workday because they were in meetings from dawn to dusk.

As a leader, where does the overflow go if you stick with the current meeting and email burden and now require employees to come back to the office? As far as I can tell, if they’re commuting from 8 am to 8:30 and 5:30 to 6:00, the only place to get individual work done is even earlier in the morning (before the commute), later in the evening (after the commute), or on the weekend.

For many knowledge workers, asking them to return to the office is asking them to divert more and more personal time to work. That’s a bad deal. I don’t blame them for rejecting it.

Time for a Reset

This is a perfect opportunity (when work schedules and habits are up in the air) to completely reset how people spend their time. While there are a zillion different ways that you can find efficiencies and increase effectiveness, the foundational requirement is to address the meeting and email suffocation.

Reset Meetings

If you’re in the midst of a transition back to the office, use the opportunity to do a complete reset on your meetings. Let’s get back to the 14.2 hours of pre-pandemic times, so people have seven extra hours for independent work. Try one or more of the following:

  • Introduce one or two meeting-free days each week
  • Cap the total hours per week individual contributors can spend in meetings
  • Instantly reduce the length of all standing meetings by half
  • Reduce the frequency of standing meetings
  • Introduce in-person huddles with no chairs (watch the duration drop!)
  • Shrink the participant list for meetings
  • Allow meetings only during certain hours and have meeting blackouts for productivity

If you want a more systemic fix, you’re going to need to:

  • Address kludgey organizational structures where accountability is unclear
  • Empower single decision-makers to make the call and have consequences for those who stand in the way of implementation
  • Prioritize and phase work so individuals are working on fewer things at once, allowing them to focus and move efficiently through deliberations
  • Work through the conflict debt that’s contributing to additional meetings before the meeting and after the meeting.
  • Resolve trust issues that contribute to inefficient meeting dynamics

And Wrangle the Email Monster

While you’re at it, have a think about whether you’re ok with paying for 11.7 hours of email a week. What’s it doing for your business? Get some tips in my article How to Stop Email from Being a Soul-Destroying Task.

Workload has become unmanageable. Many employees are keeping their heads above water by repurposing the time they used to spend commuting to squeeze in some of the work that was squeezed out by a steep increase in meetings. If you want people back in the office more often, you must address the meeting bloat and the email monster.

Maybe if we reduce the meeting and email burden, people can leave their work at the office. We’ll benefit from re-establish the healthy boundaries between work and personal time that got obliterated during the pandemic. That would be good.

More on This: Return-to-Office Miniseries

We are botching the return-to-office transition. We need to talk less about individual productivity and talk more about the obligation to contribute to healthy teams and organizations. But leaders, the price of admission to that conversation is to give up some control so employees can optimize their experience and to reset how the workweek is used so we have less overflow into personal time.

Additional Resources

Guide: Adapting to a Hybrid Workplace

Stop Doing THIS if You Want to Have More Effective Meetings

Your Best Contribution to a Meeting Might Be to Not Attend at All

Reduce Stress with These Best Practices for Virtual Communication

Video: Hybrid Work Strategies – Deciding What’s ‘Office Worthy’


Sources Cited:

[1] Hybrid Work Is Just Work. Are We Doing It Wrong?Microsoft

[2] Productivity Trends Report: One-on-One Meeting

[3] Carleton Study Finds People Spending a Third of Job Time on Email – Steven Reid | Carleton Newsroom

[4] The social economy: Unlocking value and productivity through social technologies – Michael Chui & James Manyika, et al. | McKinsey & Company

[5] Remote Work Saves Global Commuters 72 Minutes a Day, Study Finds – Michael Sasso | BNN Bloomberg