New Outlook options encourage short meetings and more breaks

Just lately, Microsoft’s Human Components Engineering carried out an experiment. It concerned 14 take a look at topics sitting by Microsoft Groups meetings regarding typical enterprise duties resembling writing a advertising and marketing plan and planning workplace house. And the entire affair was meant to simulate real-world conditions aside from one factor: The attendees wore electroencephalogram (EEG) caps that allowed Microsoft to watch electrical exercise of their brains.

On at some point, the topics participated in 4 back-to-back half-hour video meetings. That made for 2 nonstop hours of collaboration. On one other day, contributors additionally did 4 half-hour video calls. However this time, quite than ending one session and instantly diving into one other, they paused for ten minutes and meditated utilizing the Headspace app.

Throughout these meditation breaks, EEG readings confirmed the take a look at topics’ stress ranges tumbling, as you’d count on. However although their stress then elevated through the subsequent meetings, it nonetheless fell nicely short of the stress ranges recorded when the identical individuals attended consecutive meetings with no breaks.

Take a break between meetings, and your stress degree dips—and stays decrease than for those who hadn’t taken the break. [Image: courtesy of Microsoft]

A break, in different phrases, isn’t only a break. “Taking breaks is sweet to your mind’s well being, but additionally it’s good for preserving you really productive,” says Michael Bohan, a senior director in Microsoft’s Human Components Engineering group. “There’s an irony right here—I feel that folks really feel like in the event that they take a break, they’re not being productive.”


By “break,” Bohan does not imply “spending ten minutes frantically attempting to compensate for e-mail.” Microsoft had everybody meditate utilizing Headspace for the sake of consistency in its testing methodology. (The corporate additionally introduced a partnership final 12 months that integrated Headspace into Microsoft Teams.) However Microsoft 365 company VP Jared Spataro says that any nice exercise that isn’t about getting stuff accomplished ought to do the trick: “It’s much less about meditation and it’s more about disengaging your mind from the work. In our personal analysis, we’ve seen that sketching, doodling, and studying can have very related results.”

Now, this isn’t an occasion of analysis information that’s going to guide anybody to reassess what they thought they knew a few subject. After all being trapped in infinite meetings  is dangerous to your means to deliver your full mind and vitality to your work. Microsoft simply confirmed what anybody who’s ever accomplished three meetings in a row—as I did this morning—may have advised you.

Regardless that too many meetings with too few breaks isn’t a brand new drawback, the corporate says that the period of digital meetings compounds it. “Our brains are wired for speaking with human beings in the true 3D world and not in flattened grids—digitized individuals that you simply solely see a part of,” explains Bohan. “You’re feeling compelled to stare at individuals, however in the true world, you don’t try this.” A single typical video assembly is more tense than its in-person equal; three or 4 in a row could also be downright excruciating.

Microsoft’s EEG take a look at reveals stress constructing as you do assembly after assembly with no break. [Image: courtesy of Microsoft]

Because the maker of a number of the world’s most used merchandise for scheduling and conducting meetings, Microsoft is in a spot to show its findings into new options. Final 12 months, for instance, it gave Groups a Collectively mode that shows coworkers in settings resembling a simulated auditorium quite than as a Brady Bunch-style checkerboard of video home windows. The corporate says that helps scale back the stress of on-line meetings.

And now Microsoft is tweaking the calendar options in Outlook to allow clients to specify defaults that carve out break time, with each the assembly and break default lengths person configurable. As an example, what might need been a 30-minute assembly beginning at 2 p.m. may develop into a “shortened” 20-minute assembly ending at 2:20 p.m., with ten minutes for a brain-clearing break. (Alternatively, the ten minute break may begin at 2 p.m., pushing the assembly to 2:10 p.m.)

Apart from letting people shorten their very own meetings this manner, Outlook will let organizations set default assembly and break lengths, thereby encouraging everybody to err on the aspect of briefer meetings that don’t collide with one another. A pop-up message will clarify that such insurance policies have been instituted on the group degree.

All alongside, after all, it’s been doable to maintain meetings temporary and protect loads of downtime—it’s simply that such self-discipline doesn’t come naturally to many people. Microsoft hopes that the brand new options will assist. “You can have already accomplished this earlier than, simply adjusting the assembly time,” says Spataro. “However as a result of it’s really easy to click on in your calendar and take the default inside that block, we see so many 30 minute, 60 minute meetings, and individuals fill the time.”


Partly, back-to-back assembly tradition is a results of calendar apps defaulting to hour-long meetings.

Up to now, I haven’t tried this new performance for myself. I’ve solely examine it in some Microsoft supplies and heard Spotaro and Bohan clarify it. However I confess that I ponder if the entire idea of your calendaring software program shortening meetings isn’t overcomplicating issues. It appears to presume that folks’s impulse will proceed to contain scheduling lengthy meetings, with Outlook intervening to chop them down them for everybody’s good.

Microsoft isn’t the one calendar firm who thinks about it this manner. For nearly a decade, Google Calendar has had a Speedy meetings possibility which describes itself as ending “30 minute meetings 5 minutes early and longer meetings ten minutes early.” However a 60-minute assembly that ends ten minutes early isn’t a speedy 60-minute assembly; it’s a 50-minute assembly. It ought to be embraced by itself deserves!

In the case of being engaged in a gathering, Microsoft says, your mind waves displaying Frontal Alpha Asymmetry is an efficient signal. [Image: courtesy of Microsoft]

There’s a cultural side right here that software program could have hassle overriding. Neither Microsoft nor Google is stopping anybody from ignoring the defaults and making meetings even longer in order that they take an hour (or more) even after break time has been accounted for. Neither is there any assure that somebody received’t schedule a brand new assembly that cuts into the break time that Outlook created earlier than or after a beforehand scheduled assembly.

That’s not even accounting for the various meetings that simply carry on going nicely after their official scheduled time has elapsed. It’s all too straightforward to check individuals treating Outlook’s 50-minute meetings and ten-minute breaks like . . . nicely, a one-hour assembly.

Partly, back-to-back assembly tradition is a results of calendar apps defaulting to hour-long meetings, which they’ve accomplished for so long as I can bear in mind. That dramatically will increase the probabilities that you simply’ll find yourself with two (or more) meetings in a row and no respiratory house in between. It appears to me that merely permitting a corporation to set the default assembly size at 50, 45 minutes, or much less would go a good distance towards addressing this drawback, with out introducing the wrinkle of shortening meetings or making them speedy.

Nonetheless, I admire what Microsoft is attempting to do with these new options. If more individuals err on the aspect of preserving meetings short and remembering to recharge their psychological batteries, it could possibly solely be progress. For years, Outlook has facilitated assembly overload; it’s about time it did one thing to discourage it.