When Highwire Public Relations went all remote in March, the company ramped up its meetings to make up for the lost face time.

That meant more one-on-ones, more team meetings, virtual happy hours, brainstorming sessions and internal client meetings.

“We quickly found ourselves in nothing but meetings. It was all meetings all the time. It was exhausting and terrifying,” said Carol Carrubba, principal at Highwire.

A recent report by researchers from Harvard Business School and New York University’s Stern School of Business shows the average length of meetings has dropped 20% since before the pandemic began. But while meetings have gotten shorter, we’re having more of them. The number of meetings increased by 13%, the report found. (The study aggregated meeting and email meta-data from more than 3 million users in 16 large metropolitan areas in North America, Europe and the Middle East.)

To address the problem, Highwire did what any good PR agency would do: created a challenge with a snappy title. The company came up with the “#timeback challenge, ” which included trying to purge 30% of meetings and shortening the length of meetings. The goal is to get 30-minute meetings down to 25 minutes or less, and hour-long meetings down to 45 minutes.

The company then created a Slack channel called the “#timebackchallenge” where workers share what they are doing with all their new free time. On average, people were saving about three hours a week, according to Carrubba. Some workers say they have time to read more, while others report they are creating healthier lunches.

“The more meetings you have stacked up during day, even if they’re helpful, that means you are pushing your workday later and later to catch up on the things you need to do coming out of those meetings,” she said. “I could tell the emotional passion was slipping for sure.”

Cloud cybersecurity company iboss has made a shift to more frequent and shorter meetings.

“We increased our one-on-one meetings substantially,” said Peter Martini, president and co-founder.

But those meetings are much quicker. When everyone was in the office, employees generally blocked off an hour for a meeting that would cover a broad set of topics.

“Now, we have micro-meetings – we jump on a call, cover one topic and move on,” he said.

So while workers are having more meetings, the net effect is that they are spending less time in meetings per day compared to pre-pandemic levels, the report also found.

Reducing ‘Zoom fatigue’

Virtual meetings add another layer of complexity, as people try to gauge each other’s reactions and figure out when to jump in. And then there’s that pesky mute problem.

All of those issues can quickly become exhausting.

Some companies are scheduling “meeting-free” days to prevent this so-called Zoom fatigue.

Before the pandemic, most employees at cloud communications platform Twilio had between three and six meetings per day on average, according to Chief People Officer Christy Lake.

“Every interaction, from team happy hours to one-on-ones became a virtual meeting by default,” she said in an email to CNN Business. “Some employees spent their entire day ‘in meetings’ and, as you can imagine, some real fatigue set in.”

So the company instituted “No Meeting Fridays.” Lake said there was some initial push back when the concept was introduced, but it’s led to teams creating a better meeting culture and an overall reduction in meetings.

“We’ve seen employees start to question the need and urgency of a meeting, book shorter meetings by default, and eliminate unnecessary syncs,” Lake said. She added that, in the past, people who were listed as optional to attend a meeting would still attend, but now many are skipping them altogether.

And not every question, problem or brainstorming session has to default to a meeting.

“What meetings can be turned into an ad hoc way to collaborate?,” said Lisa Nielsen, vice president of people at product intelligence platform company Amplitude. “What meetings could actually take place on Slack, or are we better off turning off the camera and doing a walk and talk?”

She and her team have been doing “no camera meetings Wednesdays.”

“We are trying to reduce the amount of meetings and reduce the redundancy of being on video all day long,” she said. “Zoom fatigue is very real, and if we can’t reduce the number of meetings, maybe it can be a combination of video on and video off, or using Slack or finding ways for people to take more breaks throughout the day.”