No one thinks it’s a good idea to sit through meetings all day, every day—but since the start of pandemic-era remote work, many people have been doing just that. A calendar packed with video meetings can feel like a form of limbo—a helpless state of chatter about what needs to get done but isn’t getting done ... because you’re too busy meeting.

Microsoft has been studying how people work and collaborate through research, surveys, and analysis of how customers use its tools. What the science says: There are ways to meet less often and still make everyone feel engaged and fully looped-in. We can learn from 2020—the year of meeting overload—and become wiser in 2021: Let’s make this the year of more thoughtful, more intentional meetings. Here are seven strategies to get you there.

Strategy One: Ask yourself, is a meeting the right way to get this done?

Does it feel like you’re in more meetings than ever? You are! An anonymized study of Microsoft Teams activity between February and August 2020 showed a 55% increase in the number of meetings and calls per week, spurred on by the shift to remote work during COVID-19. It was an understandable attempt to keep everyone connected—and it was unsustainable.

What’s become clear since then: Work doesn’t begin and end with a meeting. Collaboration—and moving work forward—is both synchronous and asynchronous. Often, teams can get the same work done more quickly and conveniently when people weigh in asynchronously, via document collaboration, say, or in Teams channels.

Within Microsoft 365, leaders have looked at the data and are pushing back against meetings as the default mode for collaboration. “We’re definitely asking, ‘Do you have to have this meeting—seriously, do you have to have it?’ ” says Jared Spataro, corporate vice president of Modern Work. “ ‘Are there other ways to move this project forward?’ And we’re being hard-core about it.”

When you do need to meet, don’t forget to assign roles—leader, presenter, note-taker—and to communicate the goal or goals of the meeting in the invitation. (And if it’s hard to articulate the goal, maybe you should rethink hosting a meeting.)

Strategy Two: Beware the “million-dollar meeting”

Does your organization hold meetings that are both recurring and very large? Companies should be mindful of that combination: It’s costly.

“One of the things we often show customers—and which is very powerful to the C-suite particularly—is their ‘million-dollar meeting,’ ” says Kamal Janardhan,

Does your organization hold meetings that are both recurring and very large? Companies should be mindful of that combination: It’s costly.

general manager for Microsoft Workplace Intelligence, M365 Modern Workplace Transformation. “We find the meeting at their organization that has the most attendees and the most senior people,” she says. It’s worth considering whether that meeting is the best use of their skills, expertise, and experience—not to mention their valuable time. The question these companies need to ask themselves, Janardhan says, is: “Are you sure this meeting is worth a million dollars?”

Two possible solutions: Maybe the meeting needs to be large but happens less often—or it happens often but can be smaller.

Strategy Three: Be intentional about time

Is this trash day? Did I feed the cat? What’s for lunch? You’re not imagining things: It’s hard to stay focused during a lengthy remote meeting.

You’re testing the focus of coworkers if you routinely schedule virtual meetings that stretch past the half-hour mark. Research out of Microsoft’s Human Factors Labs suggests that after about 30 to 40 minutes of concentration, fatigue starts setting in.

Some conversations really do require an hour. But when possible, cap meetings at 25 minutes or 50 minutes, so people have time to stretch and walk around before their next meeting. (In Outlook, you can set a default to do just that.) If a longer meeting is needed, build in a 5-minute break partway through, then get back to it. Give your brain time to recharge—and yes, it is trash day.

Strategy Four: Keep your culture alive (and have fun)

The company bake-off, the annual retreat, the holiday party…you probably didn’t celebrate any of them IRL last year. There are some ways to keep traditions alive, however—or to even create new ones—during this unprecedented time.

Take a cue from AEG, one of the world’s leading sports and live entertainment companies. AEG’s IT staff programs amusing themes for its twice-weekly huddles on Microsoft Teams. “We started with ‘wear your funkiest hat,’ and we have had meetings where everyone wears a favorite concert tee,” says Bill Martin, AEG’s chief information officer. “Just fun things to keep everyone connected.”

Strategy Five: Understand the psychology of FOMO—and resist it

Chances are you’re joining quite a few meetings you could safely skip. These are meetings, not Coachella, folks.

Still, “We’re finding that fear of missing out is a real thing,” says Spataro of Modern Work. Give yourself (and others) permission to skip nonessential meetings. And have someone take clear, concise notes for the wider team to read afterward. When people know they can quickly catch up, they’re less worried about missing something.

Other options: People can follow the meeting via a chat in a Teams channel, listen to the meeting recording, or read the transcript when it’s convenient for them.

After a few skipped meetings, “if you start to see things in the notes that make you want to be there, then, great—you should come,” Spataro says. “But otherwise, what's the best meeting out there? It's the meeting you don’t have to attend.”

Strategy Six: Trade large, recurring meetings for a meaningful one-on-one

“Did you catch the game last night?” “Have you tried that new dumpling shop?” Sure, it seems superficial, but those brief moments of office chat are sorely missed in the world of remote and hybrid work. In a Microsoft Harris Poll of people in six countries, almost 60% of those surveyed feel less connected to their colleagues since working from home more often. That might seem like a paradox given meeting overload, but group meetings can’t quite replace those IRL exchanges between colleagues.

Informal interactions create trust and goodwill; they build social capital. And that social capital and connection, according to Microsoft Senior Research Economist Sonia Jaffe, is associated with a vast range of benefits, from job satisfaction to better health. In remote work situations, people have to try harder to have casual (but essential) conversations. Jaffe suggests setting up small group lunches or “social channels” in Teams, plus one-to-one chats or virtual coffee meetings.

Try this rule: For every three or so inessential group meetings you decline, schedule a one-to-one catch-up with a direct report, teammate, or someone on another team. One more thing: Don’t forget to reach out to coworkers who were onboarded virtually and who have entirely missed out on watercooler chat.

Strategy Seven: Set boundaries—and stick to hard stops

All good things must come to an end...now!

It’s tempting to say yes to late meetings when your only “commute” is between your home office and your kitchen. But in an era of meeting and chat overload, it’s essential to respect some boundaries. Don’t forget to set hard stops—not only on meeting lengths, but on workdays. And work hours. And work itself.