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How to professionally decline an unnecessary Zoom meeting

Video calls are sometimes the most productive way to get work done. But not every Zoom call is essential.

How to professionally decline an unnecessary Zoom meeting
[Source illustration: nadia_bormotova/iStock]

December means a lot of things—the holidays, end-of-year wrap-ups, and, this year: intense Zoom fatigue. After almost nine months of meetings, happy hours, and even conferences, you’re not alone if you’re dreading another packed day of back-to-back video calls.

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As Deb LaMere, vice president of human resources for Datasite, explains, while remote working has forced us to engage with others in ways we haven’t before, it’s also made us exhausted since we continuously balance personal and professional obligations under the same roof—all day, every day. So when you’re asked to be presentable enough to be on camera when you just spent the last 20 minutes wrangling your toddler, it can be overwhelming.

That’s why it’s okay—and even recommended—to decline Zoom meetings when they aren’t necessary. And more to the point: You can nicely challenge your manager to stop making video calls the default way of communicating. 

How can you do this? Here, executives and psychologists share their strategic insights on how to say no professionally: 

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Be honest and transparent 

There’s a reason it’s traditionally regarded as the best policy: Honesty makes us all human. As LeMere notes, people appreciate transparency, and by explaining how you feel, you connect with your colleagues or clients differently. “Know that if you are feeling fatigued, it’s likely that others are, too. The people with whom you are meeting may be relieved that you’ve stepped forward with a different solution,” she says. 

She suggests saying something like this: “I would still like for us to meet, but would you be open to a phone call instead? I have been on several video calls today, and I would like to give you 100% of my time to listen and talk with you.”

Strategize based on the size of the meeting

Paula Wilbourne, a clinical psychologist and the cofounder and chief science officer for health and wellness platform Sibly, says everyone performs their best by using various strategies. While some like to have that constant connection, others need time to disconnect, tune in to their creativity flow, and then touch base with coworkers for feedback. That’s why boundaries still matter; in some cases, they matter even more than pre-COVID-19. By saying no, Wilbourne explains, we maximize our efficiency and maintain a positive outlook. For her, the meeting size matters. 

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For a one-on-one conversation, a phone call will almost always be sufficient. When she recently proposed this, she said the idea was very well received, and, in fact, the other person seemed to echo a sentiment of relief at not having to appear on camera. 

Have the quality vs. quantity discussion with your boss

Though we are nine months into a global remote working experiment, many organizations have yet to set clear guidelines or best practices on video meetings. Due to fear of losing employee engagement or dropping the ball on necessary tasks, many managers are scheduling more meetings than ever, according to Janeen Gelbart, CEO and cofounder of leadership consulting firm Indiggo.

Though this overcompensation isn’t meant to cause stress, many professionals struggle to focus if they’re worried about how they appear or if their dog will interrupt a call. That’s why Gelbart suggests having a candid and frank chat with your boss about quality versus quantity with Zoom. Then, when you’re bombarded with meeting requests, you can easily share why you won’t be joining, or why you think the Zoom isn’t necessary at all.

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“This shared framework enables a culture where you can then decline nonessential meetings in a common context leading to more effective outcomes,” she explains. “The shared context is more important to successfully decline than the medium used to decline the meeting.”

Prioritize productivity

One way to decline a Zoom meeting professionally is to give a convincing reason why attending a video session has the opposite impact on your performance than intended. When most people feel tired and burned out from face-to-face conversations, their work productivity is subpar. They make more mistakes, take longer to complete deliverables, and, overall, they accomplish less, explains women’s business coach Teresa Sabatine

If your manager is packing your calendar, suggest a more structured way of working so you can exceed expectations. This might look like scheduling “creativity” time blocks and limiting how many Zooms happen in a day. “This more intentional technology schedule will give you permission to send the email or pick up the phone while on a walk around the neighborhood instead of feeling pressure to show up for everything via video,” she adds.

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Recognize when an email is enough

Ever left a meeting thinking to yourself, That could have been an email? If so, you’re not alone. It may seem dismissive to offer an email to replace a video, but it can be just as useful, depending on the topic. For example, motivational speaker Keith L. Brown had a client who wanted to meet virtually, and Brown explained he had been “on” most of the week and recommended an engaging email instead. While the client was disappointed at first, ultimately she agreed it was more than sufficient. 

In practice, you could even use it as a team-building exercise since many employees are less than ecstatic about yet another Zoom cocktail hour. Brown says it might look like having everyone email their responses to set questions and have others guess what the tone of the email was, based on the memes used, and so forth. 

Get creative with alternatives

Another option for a catch-up that isn’t a Zoom or an email? A walk-and-talk. Ashley Stahl, a career expert for SoFi, recently had a handful of meetings scheduled with her publisher to finalize her book. While she loved the process, she needed to save her eyes from the screen. So she suggested that to get the creative juices flowing, their next session could be a walking phone call. “We both put our headphones in and started walking. About 15 minutes into the call, we were more engaged and excited than normal, and it has become a more regular occurrence moving forward,” she says.

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Or, if you want to keep your exercise to a solo experience, entrepreneur Leena Alsulaiman suggests taking advantage of the voice note app on your phone. “If the meeting has been requested to discuss a question that you feel could be addressed asynchronously, you can send the organizer a voice note with your input to reply and possibly negate the need for the Zoom call altogether,” she shares. 

Ask for an agenda before accepting

Sometimes it’s obvious when a meeting doesn’t require a Zoom. Other times, you’re 10 minutes in and you’re internally rolling your eyes at the lack of purpose for the gathering. Gelbart says it’s reasonable to ask for a meeting agenda before you accept an invite. By looking over what the session will cover, you can determine if your presence is really required or not. Suppose it doesn’t fit with your current priorities but may be of interest in the future, communicate clearly when you’ll be ready to discuss this topic. “If it’s not relevant to you, it’s easier to decline immediately, explaining that this is not your focus right now, rather than to keep someone on the hook hoping to meet with you,” she explains.

If you report to the people who are inviting you, Gelbart recommends sharing your current focus areas and asking if you should still attend.

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