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Why Your Hybrid Team is Multitasking During Your Meetings

Thursday June 17, 2021

The greatest productivity drain of remote work may be neither childcare nor even YouTube — but rather adults’ challenge to stay focused when a meeting is…well…unfocused.

As a leader at a company, you have a lot of plates to keep spinning. It can be frustrating when a challenge pops up that you don’t know how to solve. For instance, think about meeting engagement. Have you noticed that it has gone down with hybrid or remote workplaces? If so, you’re far from alone.

How Common Is Multitasking?

Remote work has an array of possible productivity drains, but do you know what the largest one is? If you said watching YouTube videos or parenting the kids, you might not be quite right. Adults nowadays often have a lot of trouble staying focused while in meetings. It could be creating huge problems with meeting engagement.

Stanford University, along with Amazon and Microsoft, collaborated on large-scale research on this topic. When looking at multitasking behavior in remote meetings, the insights might be startling. It turns out that about 30% of remote meetings involved email multitasking, and 25% had file multitasking going on.

If multitasking is dropping meeting engagement in your company, you can see that you are far from alone. It’s a common phenomenon among those in remote meetings. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can do about it. 

How do we multitask during meetings and why is your hybrid team multitasking during your meetings?

~30% of remote meetings involved email multitasking. ~25% of meetings involved file multitasking.

More multitasking happens
in long meetingsMore multitasking happens in long meetingsThe odds of email multitasking in 20-40 minute meetings, 40-80 minute meetings, and >80 minute meetings are 1.96, 3.22 and 6.21 times the odds of 0-20 minutes meetings.

Many people mention that they simply cannot concentrate for a long time.

More multitasking happens
in large meetingsMore multitasking happens in large meetingsThe odds of email multitasking in 3 attendee meetings, 4-5 attendee meetings, 6-10 attendee meetings, and >10 attendee meetings are 1.12, 1.39, 1.70 and 2.16 times the odds of the meetings with only 1-2 attendees.

Participants more actively focus on the meeting conversations when the meetings are small.


More multitasking happens in recurring and scheduled meetings

compared to ad hoc meetingsWhy Your Hybrid Team is Multitasking - Scheduled MeetingsThe odds of email multitasking in recurring and scheduled meetings is 1.59 and 1.31 times the odds of multitasking in ad hoc meetings.

Ad hoc meetings generally involve a specific focus relevant to the specific attendees.

Morning meetings

involve more multitaskingWhy Your Hybrid Team is Multitasking - Morning MeetingsThe odds of multitasking in the morning are 1.86 times the odds of the after hour meeting baseline.

In the afternoon people are generally more focused.

More multitasking happens Monday through Thursday

compared to FridayWhy Your Hybrid Team is MultitaskingThe odds of email multitasking on Tuesday are 1.35 times the odds of multitasking on Friday, followed by Monday (1.23 times), Wednesday (1.19 times) and Thursday (1.19 times).

The companies studied encouraged fewer meetings on Friday, so this finding might be company-specific.

How Remote Work Increased Multitasking During Meetings

So what’s the difference between in-person and remote meetings? Why are people doing more multitasking when they’re remote? If you think it might be related to the location, that isn’t quite true. It turns out that one of the largest reasons for multitasking in remote meetings involves body language.

When someone is out of the office during a meeting, it’s impossible to see their body language. It’s also impossible for them to see yours. While this might not seem like a serious factor – it is. Body language is a huge part of how people communicate, and in a remote world, it simply isn’t present in the same amounts.

That means that multitasking is going to be more common and cause less meeting engagement. When body language isn’t present, people lose some of the messages. This can lead to spending time doing things other than focusing on what is happening in front of them.

What are the learnings and guidelines for remote meetings? How do you combat your hybrid team’s multitasking?

The study shares five (5) recommendations for running meetings with remote participants:

1. Avoid important meetings in the morning

Morning meetings coincide with peaks in email activity

Prior evidence also suggests that people are most focused in mid-afternoons.

2. Reduce the number of unnecessary meetings

Consider sharing information asynchronously.

3. Shorten meeting duration and insert breaks

Humans have an upper time limit where they can fully engage and pay attention.

4. Encourage active contribution from the appropriate number of attendees

Use stimulating interactions, especially if it is a large meeting with a variety of attendees.

5. Allow space for positive multitasking

Consider personalized meeting agenda so that people are aware of the timing when relevant agenda items come up.

Consider a convention where video-on implies full attention, and video-off signals to multitask.

How Meeting Times Affect Attention and Multitasking

One of the largest factors that affect meeting engagement is the length of the meetings. This is true in person, but it’s doubly important to be aware of when meetings are held remotely. Knowing the statistics about this can help you improve meeting engagement and ensure people are paying attention.

Let’s start with email multitasking. The odds of multitasking during 20 to 40-minute meetings are 1.96 times more likely than in shorter meetings. In 40 to 80-minute meetings, this goes up to 3.22 more likely than in meetings under 20 minutes. And for meetings over 80 minutes? There are 6.21 times the odds of email multitasking happening.

You can also look at attendees and the likelihood of email multitasking. Using one to two attendees as a base, meetings with three attendees make multitasking 1.12 times more likely. With four to five, this moves to 1.39, while six to 10 attendees bumps it to 1.70. Attendees over that will bump the likelihood up 2.16 times.

It also turns out that less multitasking occurs with ad hoc meetings than with recurring and scheduled meetings. It’s 1.31 times more likely email multitasking occurs with scheduled meetings and 1.59 in recurring meetings.

Time matters, too. In morning meetings, multitasking is 1.86 times more likely than in after-hour meetings.

Look at the time of the week as well. Email multitasking is 1.35 times more likely to occur in Tuesday meetings than in Friday meetings. On Monday, that number is 1.23 times, while it’s 1.19 times more common during Tuesday and Thursday meetings.

How to Run Meetings More Effectively for Higher Engagement

So how do you create better meeting engagement for remote meetings? There are several methods you can use. As the data above shows, people tend to be less focused on meetings in the mornings. Because of that, important meetings should be scheduled at other times. Consider having crucial meetings late in the workday for the best results.

On top of that, consider how many meetings you currently have. If there are a lot, that could be causing low meeting engagement. Are all the meetings you hold necessary? A lot of times, meetings occur because they’ve always been a part of the workplace. That isn’t a good reason to continue them.

Go through the meetings you have and see which are essential and which might not be. When you cut the number of meetings, it makes it more likely that people will pay attention when they do come around. An excessive amount of meetings can cause people to be present but not pay attention.

Now that you have the number of meetings dropped down, there are other things you can do to increase meeting engagement. Some meetings are needed, but you can still cut down on multitasking. For instance, make meetings shorter whenever possible.

If it’s not possible to cut the time, add breaks to the meetings. This gives people time to deal with other things and can make them more focused during the meeting as a result.

While you host or otherwise facilitate the meeting, don’t be the only one speaking. When you look for active contributions from various members of the team, it keeps them interested and involved in what is going on. It may not always be possible to have everyone involved, but including a few other voices can help.

Of course, not all multitasking is bad, so make space for it when it’s positive. If multitasking is contributing to the meeting rather than retracting from it, it may not have a bad effect on meeting engagement. It’s okay to make concessions as you put in place solutions to increase engagement.

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