Why multitasking in meetings is bad for business and for you
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Why multitasking in meetings is bad for business (and for you)

Multitasking during remote working has exploded

Multitasking in meetings has exploded, especially since the advent of widespread remote (and hybrid) work. To be fair, it had been increasing alongside the rise in portable digital devices. Who can’t recall a pre-COVID, in-person meeting where people were sneaking a look at email messages on their phone, with some perhaps ‘multitasking’ quite blatantly?

But, even fairly frequent device-peeking in collocated meetings has been dwarfed by the extent of multi-tasking during remote and hybrid work contexts. It seems as if almost everyone is doing it! One robust research finding (from Microsoft about Microsoft), which included analysis of timestamped tech (telemetry) data from MS email, messaging and video conferencing platforms, shows that multitasking (video/email/IM) occurred in around 30% of all meetings (and that didn’t include use of third party applications). To be clear, this analysis shows that during 30% of video meetings some attendees were also actively communicating via at least one other channel/mode.

So, why the increase in multitasking during meetings?

Remote and hybrid work these days is somewhat different from pre-COVID work that was largely collocated. For many, the initial switch to remote work at the start of the pandemic was accompanied by a huge increase in back-to-back meetings. Many also reported working longer hours and finding it difficult to do individual work with so many group calls. Unsurprisingly, many people felt (as per diary reports which were part of the Microsoft study) that they had to multitask in order to get through their work.

Although the study ended in May 2020, anecdotal evidence suggests that even with the move from wholly remote to hybrid work, as well as a less pressured workload for many, the multitasking habit has persisted. All too frequently, even people who dislike others multitasking during meetings acknowledge that they too sometimes engage in the practice. 

In this respect, as the research points out, it seems that how people see meetings has changed. It’s almost as if there is a different relationship with meetings. All said and done, you’re not going to be surprised by the finding that some meetings are more likely to be side-swiped by multitasking than others.

The larger the meeting, the more likely that multitasking will occur. Similarly, the longer the meeting, the greater the chance of multitasking happening. Also, meetings in the morning were almost twice as likely to have people multitasking as afternoon meetings. Recurring meetings were 1.6 times more likely to have multitasking than ad hoc meetings, and people reported an increased chance of multitasking when the meeting they were attending was seen as less relevant or they felt less engaged.

So, with all this multitasking going on in meetings, what does the evidence say about its contribution to productive outcomes?

What if individual brains can’t multitask?

In this article, up until this point, multitasking has been accepted without questioning its effectiveness, let alone veracity. This reflects a common view. Yes, people are indeed focusing on/doing other things while they are attending a meeting, but are they actually multitasking?

You may be surprised to learn that psychology studies show conclusively that brains don’t (in fact, can’t) multitask when it comes to higher order cognitive processing.  For example, analysis, decision making or innovating, all higher order tasks, are very different from the more hard-wired functions, such as breathing and balancing, which are processed at the same time.  At best, higher order cognitive functions are dual tasking, and more probably rapid task-switching among individual tasks.

More important though is the fact that multitasking practices relating to higher order cognitive tasks lead to immediate losses in productivity, rather than gains, and the more complex the task, the greater the negative impacts from rapid task switching.

Interestingly, a number of studies on heavy multitaskers by Stanford psychology professor, Clifford Nass, found they struggle to filter out irrelevancy and battle with working memory. “They’re chronically distracted,” notes Nass. More concerning is they don’t realise it and argue that because they do it all the time it’s good for them. That, Nass suggests, is like a smoker saying because they smoke all the time it’s good for them. Of course, it’s not!  

One more concerning takeaway from the Nass multitasking research is that, because the brain is constantly rewiring, chronic multitaskers don’t get to just quit and instantly ditch the downsides of multitasking. Multitaskers are rewiring their brains over time to work less efficiently when they work that way, so will need to relearn how to focus and process working memory more productively.

This insight alone is surely good reason for organisations to insist on protocols that minimise multitasking behaviour. In physical safety terms, it’s hardly different from allowing people to stand on an unsecure chair to change a light bulb or feed paper into a shredder that has no guard over its blade. The bottom line is that multitasking increases business risk and it also negatively impacts mental health and wellbeing.

Way to minimise (even eradicate) multitasking

We hope you’ll find the six tips below a useful catalyst in helping you make a start on eradicating multitasking in your meetings (and work practice more generally) and reap the business and personal benefits that the change offers.


Six ways to eliminate multitasking in meetings

  1. Explicitly undertake (for example, in Team Agreements) not to engage in multitasking during meetings. It’s not only respectful, it’s more productive and less stressful overall.
  2. Insist it’s ‘video on’ for everyone during virtual/hybrid meetings, which evidence shows delivers a superior meeting experience for all. Being more present and engaged is likely to reduce the distractions in the moment of alternate channels.
  3. Don’t attend a meeting if you can’t add value, or the meeting adds little or no value to your work! If there is something of relevance, can you get an agreement that you’ll log in only for that portion of the meeting?
  4. Eliminate very long meetings, especially where people are likely only to contribute in a small way and just at particular junctures. Instead, hold a few shorter, more focused meetings, where people waste less time hanging about waiting for a relevant agenda item.
  5. Explore the option of recording meetings where only parts of it may be of interest to people who are likely not to contribute directly. They can then access the recording at their most suitable time and take note of the discussions.
  6. Consider whether there might be value in creating a new meeting role (brought about by widespread use of new technology that enables recording) of ‘offline coordinator’. This person would receive questions/comments ahead (from individuals who might otherwise only contribute one thought/question and who would waste a lot of time waiting for their moment) and table them in the meeting. The offline coordinator could also be a point of contact, if people had questions arising from the meeting recording.

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