The ever-present opportunity to do other things during online meetings is one of the biggest leadership challenges with remote teams.
We all experience this temptation and see people succumb to it every day. We see it when people have their cameras on and are clearly looking at or doing something else. We see it when gifs and memes start to fly in the chat sidebar, and we see it in the questions people ask later that show they weren’t paying attention during the meeting.
I’m just as tempted as the next person to do a quick Teams Chat or email check. I’m guilty of thinking I can multitask when I get a chance, so I make a conscious effort to be present for the duration of the meeting.
When meetings were mostly in person, we used to have a ‘phones down/laptops closed’ policy to maintain focus on the topic and people. Is it possible to build out similar norms for remote meetings? Yes, and first it might help to understand what we are dealing with.
Continuous Partial Attention Problems
If it feels like the longer we’re all in the remote and hybrid world, the harder it is for us to focus on the people and discussion at hand, you’re right. Everyone is suffering from online meeting fatigue and most of us are operating in a state of continuous partial attention all day, every day.
According to Linda Stone, a former Microsoft and Apple executive, continuous partial attention, a term that she coined, is different from multitasking. She says that when we multitask, we’re trying to be more efficient.
Although study after study has shown that humans overestimate their ability to multitask, we can do it well enough when one of the tasks is automatic. We can work and eat lunch at our desk, for example, or watch a movie and do a load of laundry. There are even some small efficiency gains.
Continuous partial attention is motivated by not wanting to miss anything. Our attention may be on one task, such as attending a meeting or just trying to get our work done, but we’re constantly scanning for other things that may require our attention—an incoming text, email, or something in our home-work environment.
Attending to each of those things requires our full attention. There are no efficiency gains to be made when you’re only able to half-focus. Information and productivity are lost. Attempting to multitask can actually create opportunity for mistakes as you forget information you’ve learned.
Is it any wonder the knowledge gap between team members is growing and it’s getting harder to bring new hires up to speed? Before COVID-19 sent companies into the remote space, the onboarding and training process was tangible.
Now, if new employees aren’t clear on a task, they’re not able to walk down the hall and check in with their colleague. Without these spontaneous opportunities for collaboration and learning, it can be harder to keep team members on the same page.
Not only that, continuous, partial attention is an always-on state that prevents us from entering a mode where we can do deep, focused work. It leaves us with no mental downtime, and likely contributes to the burnout so many of us are feeling.
Remote work and online meetings aren’t going away. So what can leaders do to help their teams cope with continuous partial attention during meetings?
Defining Remote Meeting Norms
The first step is establishing meeting norms. Norms make it easier for people to participate because they know the ground rules. Should they use the raise hand icon, or just jump in? Submit questions via chat?
Here are 10 norms leadership might consider to help keep teams engaged:
1. Have a cameras-on policy.
We are all at least a little tired of being on camera. However, when we aren’t physically connected, it’s important to be virtually connected. One of the ways we do that is visually. I urge leaders to encourage people to keep their cameras on as well as provide any needed support in terms of equipment, backdrops, etc. Some team members may feel more focused off-camera, but you can encourage your team with warm responses to seeing their cameras on.
2. Define attendance.
We all know that the word “attend” means to be present. To me that means being engaged and participative as well. It’s imperative that leadership lets people know that’s what attending a meeting means. We can encourage our team members to turn off notifications and minimize windows so they won’t see pop-up notifications and be tempted. If team members are unable to fully engage, leaders can let them know it’s ok to decline the meeting.
3. Trim the guest list.
Do you need 15 people in the meeting when only five are essential? Only invite the people who really need to be there. Leaders may not even be aware of how many virtual meetings team members are being pulled into, so make this part of your regular check-ins. If a team member is in more than four hours of meetings a day, they likely don’t have time to actually get their work done.
4. Include an agenda in the invite.
I like going into a meeting knowing what to expect. With an agenda, meeting participants will be engaged automatically. The agenda should clearly highlight important information, if the meeting is informational or building towards a decision on a specific topic, etc. Sending out any review documentation is another strategy to help orient team members about the meeting well before it even starts. It’s much easier to come to a meeting prepared when team members understand the part they’ll play in the discussion/decision-making process.
5. Ask for helpers.
Asking for help makes the meeting easier on the presenter, keeps team members attentive and even allows people to catch pieces of information they may have missed. Consider assigning someone to take notes and perhaps even someone to update the project plan in real time. The more roles you can assign, the better.
6. Break the ice.
There is nothing worse than an awkward remote meeting. I mean one where you don’t even get to check in on one another or speak to the terrible weather you’re having in your area. Hosts should make sure all the participants know each other and facilitate introductions when they do not. It’s also important for meeting hosts to make small talk and get participants warmed up. Hosts can also help break the ice by sharing any jokes and asides with online participants as well as in-person.
7. Pause for feedback.
We know it’s harder to read physical cues and context clues virtually, and that might mean you miss out on making your message clear. Make sure to ask if there are any questions and leave time for people to think and unmute. Ask people for their input and be careful not to single anyone out.
8. Troubleshoot tech for hybrid meetings.
How many hybrid meetings have you been a part of where something technical goes wrong? It’s happened to me countless times, but in our remote landscape it’s important to make sure the set-up is working before the meeting starts. It’s also vital to make sure that on-line participants can see what those in the room see. Use the right tools to make sure remote and in person attendees have access to all the same information.
9. Improve your presentation skills.
It’s very hard to stay engaged in a meeting where the dulcet tones of the presenter’s voice are lulling you into a daze. Vocal variety, or varying your tone and pacing, helps hold people’s interest. So does use of gestures and facial expressions. Experiment with being a bit more dramatic than you might be in person. Even wearing brighter colors can help hold people’s attention. Where possible, use slides/presentation materials to keep people focused on the topic.
10. Provide support and training for digital hygiene and burnout.
Keeping employees engaged is not a new challenge, but the degree of difficulty has gone up. Be alert for signs of struggle. Signs of digital burnout include feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion, increased mental distance from one’s job, feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job and reduced professional efficacy. If you see these signs in a team member, connect them with the appropriate resources to get help. Consider providing ongoing training to help people manage the increasing difficulty of digital overstimulation.
A new normal
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, complaints about bad (and too many) meetings were not uncommon. The fact that we had to institute phones off/laptops down rules for meetings pre-pandemic speaks to the fact that continuous partial attention was already a problem. In the past, those rules gave us a shot at getting people’s undivided attention, if not their full engagement, during the course of the meeting.
We all know the new normal is anything but and that remote environments are here for the foreseeable future. Even when we can bring people back to the office, the hybrid model means most people won’t be in the office full-time. Finding ways to be productive in this model is the challenge of the decade.
We must first recognize the competition for attention and engagement has intensified and people have fewer avenues of escape from the “always on” online world. In order for teams to make the most of their time together, it’s incumbent upon leaders and individuals to work together to come up with ways of managing remote meetings, for the good of the organization and everyone’s sanity.