Photos: 123rf. Illustration: DUB

UU to continue meeting-free weeks with almost no e-mails; DUB panel loves the idea

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Meetings are taboo this week at Utrecht University, and e-mails should be an exception. With this measure, the Executive Board hopes to offer staff some breathing room in these busy Covid times. We asked the DUB panel: how far can the university go to combat the countless online meetings and e-mails?

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This is the second time that the UU Board is asking employees not to plan any meetings and refrain from sending e-mails unless absolutely necessary. A similar experiment conducted in the beginning of January was very successful, according to the results of a questionnaire filled out by 1,422 employees. The majority of respondents stated that they had indeed far fewer meetings, and that they experienced lower workloads and less stress.

That's exactly what the Board meant to achieve: by diminishing the amount of meetings and e-mails, the university wants to give its employees some quiet time, so they can focus on tasks or projects that they might not find time for otherwise, because of all the Covid-related issues. A week without important meetings and e-mails also makes it easier for employees to take a week off, which might also help to reduce the huge amount of vacation days employees have collected.

The measure was met with criticism as well, of course: during the trial in January, there were employees whose projects and classes meant that they had no way of avoiding meetings and e-mails. Moreover, some argued that a week like this has only caused additional workloads before and after the week itself.

But the many positive responses were the deciding factor: the UU Board announced two more weeks without meetings and with as few e-mails as possible, to be held this spring. The first week will be when primary and secondary schools have their spring break. The second one will occur between April 19 and April 23, right before the start of the fourth block of classes.

We asked the members of the DUB panel if they welcome this initiative, and whether the UU Board could come up with other measures to reduce the amount of meetings and e-mails. Last month, for example, a University Council committee discussed the proposal of a daily e-mail-free hour around lunch time. Besides, shouldn’t students be involved in the plans to reduce workloads? Perhaps they, too, need a week like that and they could spare their teachers by sending fewer e-mails 

Telepressure
Panel member Jasmijn van Harten is a research expert in the field of sustainable employability of employees within organisations. She appreciates the UU Board’s decision, arguing that many people who work from home – either completely or most of the time – often experience telepressure: the feeling that you have to respond immediately to work e-mails, texts, and phone calls, and that you have to be available 24/7. “That could cause some severe health issues, such as insomnia, burn out syndrome, not to mention more absences”.

Van Harten adds that the employee can reduce the "asynchronous communication" with these periods of fewer e-mails and meetings, but there are some limits: the measures could conflict with employees’ wishes to decide for themselves how to plan their work. “Not all employees experience telepressure, so trying out and monitoring initiatives like this one seems to me like an excellent way of making remote working viable”, she explains.

Fewer small tasks too, please
"Awesome". That's how innovation scientist Frank van Rijnsoever defines the meeting-free week. “I’m happy that we’re going to do this more often. Unfortunately, external organisations don’t do the same, but you can’t have it all”.

Van Rijnsoever thinks that agreements about fewer meetings and e-mails could definitely contribute to lower workloads. But if that’s what this is about, then he thinks it would be more effective to do something about the many small tasks that have been added to employees’ attributions these past years.

“Examples are putting data into Pure (a system for registration of research products, ed.), time keeping, all sorts of reports for projects, more elaborate feedback forms, etc. Those are all valid tasks, but they do add to the workload, for both scientific staff and support staff”.

A little more quiet for a week
Fiona van ‘t Hullenaar, Director of Corporate Real Estate & Campus at the UU, also thinks it's “amazing” to be allowed to be a little less productive for a little while. She’s noticed that her “killer schedule” is becoming harder and harder to keep up with. “A little more quiet just for a week, without having that inbox filled with e-mails, and then turn on the turbo to meet my deadlines”.

But, above all, van ‘t Hullenaar hopes that the new initiative will lead to a different "meeting culture", in which people will see that it's not necessary to spend all day in meetings with far too many people. She’d much rather see short, well-prepared meetings, and more room for “true meetings and dialogues”. What's more, she believes that having many people in a meeting "is a sign of distrust. Working on trust and recognising each other’s interests is a much better way of working”.

Good for students too
Research analyst Mies van Steenbergen suggests combining the e-mail-free week with the education-free week between blocks. “That way, everyone has that quiet time, including the students”. He would be in favour of a university-wide "out of office" message for all employees. “With a link to a website where the Executive Board explains why we’re doing this and what it means”.

Inge Vliek, student of Media and Culture, also thinks it’s a good idea to synchronise the meeting-free week with students’ so-called reflection weeks. “In these weeks, education doesn’t play such a central role, and it’s not as important to receive a fast reply from teachers”.

She could even imagine students being asked not to send e-mails to teachers in the evenings or weekends. “You know it’ll take longer before you receive a response, but at least you feel like your questions are welcome”.

Don’t look at your computer
Medicine student Thomas Visser thinks an e-mail-free week would be a great opportunity to help employees and students to separate work and private life. He knows from experience how difficult it is to ignore your e-mail for a while. “I think both students and employees could benefit from regular detox periods from the workloads brought by this digital era”. However, in his view, a more “far-reaching e-mail pause” would be too much. “A teacher has to be able to decide on his own to not look at his computer for an hour or a weekend”.

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