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The Ringelmann Effect and why Zoom meetings suck

For a lot of us, this is now month eight of constant Zooming. The big question, of course, is whether this new habit is going to stick or if it will wane along with the virus. Because the degree in which it sticks will have an impact on cities, real estate, and how we move about these spaces. Anecdotally, it would seem that a lot of people seem to think that some element of working from home is destined to remain. People like the increased flexibility. And I don’t disagree that flexibility is an attractive feature.

Personally, I am bullish on cities and on old-fashioned human interaction, because here’s how I am feeling about virtual meetings. One, we all have too many of them right now. The barriers to scheduling a virtual meeting are extremely low (one click in Outlook), and so it’s painfully easy to fill up a calendar with them. Two, it can be difficult to stay focused when jumping from back-to-back virtual meetings all day. And three, because we all have too many of these meetings, everyone is trying to multitask and respond to emails at the same time. This degrades the overall effectiveness of each meeting.

Sarah Gershman published an article earlier this year in Harvard Business Review where she talked about some of the problems surrounding online meetings. One explanation for why many of us are losing focus is something known as the “Ringelmann Effect.” The theory here is that as group sizes increase, it can be easy for individuals to feel less responsibility for a meeting’s outcome. So they tune out. Max Ringelmann, who was a French engineer, demonstrated this effect by asking both individuals and groups to pull on a rope. What he found was that people generally tried less when they were part of a bigger group. There’s always somebody else who will pick up the slack, right?

Sarah makes the argument that this phenomenon gets magnified in virtual meetings. We’re all just a little box, sometimes existing on another page, hidden mostly from view. Surely there’s another black box somewhere in this meeting who will pull the rope for me.


  1. Myron Nebozuk

    The disinvestment of meeting participants presents a real problem if one wants to move projects along.

    One of my developer clients suspended all of his projects this summer. His reason: “ I can no longer read a room when a roomful of people is on Zoom”. For him, each meeting actually consists of two meetings. The first is the scheduled meeting where a bunch of stuff gets discussed. The second meeting happens on the elevator ride after the first meeting. It is 30 seconds long and consists of the answer to this question: “What do you think? Green light, yellow light or red light?” This is the most important question- do we-as the development team- feel confident moving forward? If not, there is little point in proceeding and missing one or more critical milestones, milestones that are linked to the release of future funds. Not being able to read a room specifically takes away our ability to mitigate the City official who outwardly says yes while his body language says “over my dead body”.


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