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Distracted much? How to prevent multitasking in Zoom meetings

Distracted meetings are less effective, go on longer than they need to, and feel dissatisfying when they’re done.

March 30, 2021
Distracted much? How to prevent multitasking in Zoom meetings
Rob Lennon
Customer Education Lead at Hugo
Marketer and author with 18 years experience in retail and SaaS startups across healthcare, mar-tech, and ad-tech, and productivity software sectors.

Even before Work-From-Home became popular, people would often show up to conference rooms with a laptop ostensibly for “taking notes”.

But even well-intentioned meeting-goers soon devolve from note-taking to email-checking, responding to chats, and scanning Twitter.

While on a Zoom call by yourself, the distractions are even more tempting. It’s not like a conference room with it’s in-person accountability. Everyone is required to be on a computer, with pinging and popping notifications, an open chat window, and links to the shared document all ready to distract.

Distracted meetings are less effective, go on longer than they need to, and feel dissatisfying when they’re done. Bringing a group of people together to collectively waste each other’s time is one of the most useless (and expensive) things you can do at work.

So, how can you prevent your meetings from becoming just a group of people multitasking at work while pretending to be on a conference call?

Checking Your Temptation: Multitasking Psychology

You might feel others are the worst multitasking offenders, but the first person to assess is yourself: 

  • Do you mentally check out during meetings before they’ve gotten going?
  • Is your default mode to multitask while the other people discuss something? 
  • Do you easily get distracted by texts or notifications? 
  • Are you suffering from virtual meeting fatigue?

Everyone is under pressure to get more done, and multitasking seems like it can help. 

Still, studies on multitasking psychology show that people are deluding themselves when they think they can do two things at once. Even if you are doing something related, like the chat box in a conference call, you are tuning out to what people are saying. 

Not all meetings are worth your attention. If you find yourself in many meetings that aren’t relevant to you, it’s time to review your company’s policy on what meetings to hold. 

Step one: If everyone’s multitasking, cancel the meeting, disinvite attendees, or pair down the agenda to what’s really useful.

For examples of good types of meetings that are worth holding, here are two resources. Our Behind the Team series takes a deep dive into practices used by leading and fast-growing companies when it comes to regular meetings, and Vital Meetings: Shorter, Fewer, Better takes you step-by-step to meeting excellence.  

Ground Rules and Meeting Culture

Just as laptops and then phones snuck their way into meetings, multitasking in video calls is a natural temptation. Most companies don’t set ground rules for conference calls. It’s assumed that people who attend will pay attention and contribute. 

But just as you plan the agenda and objectives of your meeting, you can plan the meeting culture. 

Simply setting the ground rules at the beginning of the call can make all the difference. You’ll often see people say that you should type questions in the chat, or give instructions on how to raise your electronic hand, but how often do you hear people say something like “please use the chat only for relevant links and documents” or even “if we stay focused, we can finish early”?

With remote meetings, you do need some flexibility around people’s different circumstances for work-at-home. Stating the expectations out loud as a reminder will significantly reduce people’s multitasking during video calls.

Examples of ground rules you can declare at the start of the meeting:

  • Silence phones and notifications.
  • Use the chat only for questions or relevant links.
  • If you find the meeting is not relevant to your job, excuse yourself rather than pretending to be present.
  • Keep your camera on.
  • If you have a hard stop, let the group know in advance.
  • Give your full attention to the meeting.
  • The discussion will pause after each speaker so everyone can catch up on questions before going to the next speaker. 

Different groups will have different rules. Many teams like to have simultaneous chat while in a conference room, but there’s a reason why your teacher told you not to pass notes in class—it is distracting. 

If you suspect that distraction is a problem in the conference calls, have a discussion about it. 

  • Was the screenshare (or lack of screenshare) helpful?
  • Did the agenda help keep the meeting on track?
  • Did it really work to have simultaneous text chat during the call? 
  • Did anyone in the call feel that the meeting wasn’t a good use of their time and they should have left? 
  • Did anyone feel they didn’t contribute as much as possible because of how the meeting was run?  

You might have to stop mid-call or call out the team for not being engaged in the worst case. Usually it’s better to talk to people in a 1:1 situation rather than embarrassing them in front of a group. Either way, make sure to use best practices for people’s psychological safety at work.

This is not about being judgemental. Sometimes people are so addicted to their texting and social media apps, they might not know that it’s a problem, or they may have difficulty controlling their behavior without nudging.

Suppose this has become an issue in your company. In that case, you might want to show some of the multitasking research or information on multitasking psychology to spawn a discussion for healthier communication in the workplace. Or have a blanket policy of no non-meeting apps during a meeting.

Don’t Go Overtime

When a meeting goes over the scheduled time, people check out in one way or another. Attention spans dwindle. They ping their next meeting to say they’ll be late, a few people leave, or they simply stay online while continuing with their day. 

You might still have a full room, but you’ve got an empty conversation. 

If you absolutely must go over time, make sure to check in with everyone in the meeting and get their permission to either go over or schedule additional time.

Should This Even Be a Meeting

Above we suggest discussing whether anyone felt the meeting wasn't a good use of their time.

Sometimes, that's a tough discussion to have. Workplace politics, ego, and someone's desire to have or avoid conflict all play a part. It's uncomfortable, and so you might skip it.

Meetings are critical to the success of any organization, but not all are as critical as others. If you think your team might want to skip a meeting, below is an interactive quiz to help you decide. Adding a bit of a fun to a serious topic might be just the right antidote to take the edge off the conversation.


Meetings: The Right Setup to Avoid Multitasking at Work

At this point, we all think we have advanced degrees in Zooming—but if you consider how often you and your team have discussed these kinds of meeting norms and procedures—you’ll quickly realize that in most cases, you have a “default culture” rather than a group decision. 

Some of the temptation to multitask at work comes from being invited to meetings that aren’t relevant for you—or anyone for that matter. There’s a direct parallel between great company culture and great corporate meeting culture. 

Suppose you’re at an organization where people are encouraged to raise concerns with the group. In that case, you can have open conversations about the relevance of the meetings themselves and whether some of the communication can be done in asynchronous ways.

For example, we often will record a quick Loom video in lieu of a meeting if the topic is mostly an update and doesn’t require discussion. By sharing the video in Slack, people can comment or ask questions in a threaded discussion, and it doesn’t interrupt their day.

Best practices for online meetings are the same as the best practices for meetings in general. As we say here at Hugo, don’t attend a meeting without PANTS: Purpose, Agenda, Notes, Tasks, Sharing

One final tip: let the meeting end when it’s over. 

Just because you scheduled a full hour doesn’t mean you need to fill the time. If the agenda gets completed before the time is over, simply end the meeting. 

Even better, try some of these tips to cut your meetings in half

When people know their time is being honored, they pay more attention. If you’re known as someone who doesn’t waste time, it’s easier for you to set ground rules and have people follow them.

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The 4-hour meeting week and 25 other secrets from innovative, fast-moving teams
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Rob Lennon
Customer Education Lead at Hugo
Marketer and author with 18 years experience in retail and SaaS startups across healthcare, mar-tech, and ad-tech, and productivity software sectors.

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