Activity Avalanche: How Return-to-Office Is Impacting Collaboration

Earlier this year, Michael Arena cautioned us to be wary of an oncoming “activity avalanche” stemming in large part from return-to-office mandates.  From what we’re seeing in work data, the deluge is here.  

Welcome to a period of Peak Collaboration.     

What We Know: Time Spent Collaborating Exceeds Pre-Pandemic Levels

Time spent in meetings rose when we all went Remote at the start of the pandemic.  Meeting volume is now climbing even higher with Return to Office.

How We Got Here

If you cast your mind back to those hazy days in early 2020, you may recall hitting “Accept” for a flurry of calendar invites in between your frantic searches for hand sanitizer and middling attempts to sew your own face masks.

It was a weird time.  We were all in the office… until suddenly we weren’t. 

To cope, people put check-ins on the calendar that they used to have casually in the office.  They added weekly (or even daily) standups to make sure everyone knew what was going on.  Meetings became an important connection point – and may have even felt like a welcome respite from all that alone time we had during lockdown. 

After that initial spike in new meetings during early 2020, we saw meeting time begin to plateau at that new, higher level as people adjusted to a different way of working.  The additional meetings remained on the calendar for 2021, but new meetings leveled off as teams found their rhythm working remotely.

Where Things Stand Today

What may be counterintuitive is that we saw a second uptick in meetings once returns to the office (RTO) began. 

Meetings – especially recurring ones – are sticky.  So those stand-ups and 1:1s in the calendar didn’t get canceled when people started coming back into the office.

And now that you’re back onsite, you may be running into familiar faces you hadn’t caught up with recently but want to.  Or meeting new people you don’t work with directly, but feel like you could help.

As a result, lots of additional meetings are getting scheduled in the name of “let’s catchup live!”  Plus, there’s a backlog of team bonding, training sessions, and brownbag lunches that are getting reprioritized now that we’re all back together again.

Hours Spent in Meetings 2020-2022

Meetings Are Driving Over-Collaboration 

In most teams, meetings are the primary way that we collaborate with our co-workers (by sheer # hours spent).  So increases in meeting time contribute heavily to over-collaboration in general.

When we look at collaboration data, employees at companies that have returned to the office tend to spend more hours in meetings than remote-working peers.  They also have to work with more people to get their job done.  

Weekly Collaboration Metrics Remote vs RTO

More Time Collaborating Means Less Time on Focused Work

For most teams, returning to the office has changed the Shape of the Day by increasing the amount of calendar fragmentation & decreasing the amount of individual Focus Time.

Below, here’s how that looks at a typical company with a structured hybrid work schedule.  During in-office Anchor Days, there are more meetings;  calendars are choppier with fewer focus blocks.  As a result of that meeting load, employees have less than half of the Focus Time that they do during non-Anchor Days.

When we look at the impact over the span of a week, it’s common to see a 5-15% decrease in overall focus time when companies implement RTO mandates. 

Shape of the Day:  Onsite Anchor Days vs Non-Anchor Days

Focus Time is important because knowledge workers need 3.5 hours of focus each day in order to feel productive.  They report feelings of overwhelm, burnout, and disengagement when they don’t have the dedicated time necessary to do their individual work.  

Self-Reported Productivity Scores vs Available Focus Hours per Day


What to Do About It:  Focus on the Meeting Makers

5% of employees create 60% of meetings

To address meeting sprawl, you need to understand where the meetings are coming from. For a lot of organizations, it’s a small subset of the employee base that creates a majority of all meetings.  

In most companies, meeting sprawl starts at the top with the Executives and the EAs & Chiefs of Staff who support them.  To tackle the “activity avalanche,” you’ll need to start at the top of the mountain.  

Meetings Created per Week by Job Family
Meeting creators often have poor meeting habits 

This same group – our “Meeting Makers” – tend to have poor meeting hygiene.  Meeting Makers often have the largest number of late-start and late-end meetings each week.

By nature of their role, it’s an Executive’s job to meet with his or her team to stay abreast of what’s going on, advise on next steps, and provide context for better decision-making.  But it’s been our experience that these Senior Leaders often don’t realize just how much additional team time gets sucked up by poor meeting hygiene like late starts & ends. 

Late Start and End Meetings by Job Family

Don’t let overruns snowball

The solution may very well lie in pulling a page from Kaz Nejatian’s book over at Shopify.  Kaz recently built a calendar plug-in that quantifies the cost of meetings to nudge meeting makers & attendees to be thoughtful about how they spend their time.

You don’t need to go as far as the Shopify team went in order to see similar results.  Instead, you might just arm Executives and the EAs who support them with some back-of-the-envelope math to drive behavior change.  

Here’s an example of what that could look like:

Estimated Cost of Meeting Overruns

Once you’ve socialized the cost of poor meeting hygiene, you can implement operational backstops to prevent overruns from snowballing.  Some of our favorites:

  • Change calendar defaults to end meetings at :20 or :50 past the hour to build in buffer time
  • Make sure the clock is visible in the room or on Zoom
  • Appoint a timekeeper to do regular time checks at the :10 or :15min mark
  • Set expectations that meetings will end on time – even if they started late 

Does your leadership team need to see their data?  Checkout our Meeting Effectiveness Report to benchmark how your company's habits compare to peers.'

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