Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 13, Issue 32;   August 7, 2013: Virtual Meetings: Dealing with Inattention

Virtual Meetings: Dealing with Inattention

by

Last updated: August 8, 2018

There is much we can do to reduce the incidence of inattention in virtual meetings. Cooperation is required.
An Empire Apple

An empire apple. Apples are an extreme example of what not to eat while engaged in conversation, either in person or by telephone. They require chewing, and chewing can prevent the chewer from speaking when necessary. In telephone conversation, there is the additional problem that both biting and chewing are noisy. The list of noisy foods includes many fruits, nuts, chips, crackers, popcorn, some candies, carbonated drinks, and much more. But noise isn't the only problem. Eating itself is a distracting activity, even without spills and accidents. Photo by Peggy Greb courtesy the U.S. Agricultural Research Service.

Inattention in virtual meetings is a common source of frustration. But that frustration is often unjustified, because many virtual meeting leads have yet to take two necessary steps. The first is to set standards of attentiveness — behavioral norms. Here are some examples of behaviors that reduce meeting effectiveness.

Eating
In face-to-face meetings eating does happen, but the costs there are much lower, because communication is more effective in face-to-face meetings than it is in virtual meetings. In virtual meetings, where we might depend solely on electronic channels, and where audio channel quality can be marginal, eating during the meeting can degrade the meeting's effectiveness.
Electronic activities unrelated to the meeting
Electronic activities of all kinds — games, gambling, texting, viewing videos, enhancing Facebook pages, listening to music, and dozens more — all compete for attention. They are incompatible with full participation. Still, some electronic activities are actually part of the meeting — viewing a presentation, attending to the conversation, checking one's calendar for compatibility with a proposed meeting. But everything unrelated to the meeting ought to be off limits.
Conversation with those not attending
Officemates or passersby sometimes visit attendees who are at work; children, spouses, neighbors, or pets sometimes visit When people want distractions,
they find them. What
can we do about all this?
with attendees who are at home. It's tempting for attendees to mute their phones and engage in conversation while the meeting continues. This behavior might be acceptable in emergencies, but in emergencies attendees should just sign off.
Conversation with those attending
Sidebar conversations are distracting. They occur more often in conference rooms in which everyone in the room is connected to the meeting through a speakerphone or video, but they can also occur over alternative phone or video links, or via text. All sidebars, in whatever medium, degrade meeting effectiveness.
Rearranging desk drawer contents, sorting, and filing
Office housekeeping chores might seem to be mindless at first, but they can quickly capture the brain when the housekeeper encounters something that has to be read. That's where inattentiveness sets in.
Pairing socks
For those participating from home, actual housekeeping is a temptation. There's nothing special about pairing socks; any distracting household chore can be corrosive.

When people want distractions, they find them. What can we do about all this?

Seeking cooperation is the second too-often-omitted step for increasing attentiveness. Ask attendees to develop and agree to attentiveness norms. And it helps to appoint a timekeeper, a parking lot valet, a designated digression detector, and a queue manager, because people who accept these responsibilities are compelled to be more attentive.

In exchange, offer five-minute breaks every 20 minutes. This concedes nothing, because attendees will take breaks or self-distract with or without permission. As a virtual meeting lead, you can't choose to skip breaks. You can only choose when they happen, and whether everyone breaks at the same time.

That's all I have for now. Time to go pair my socks. Go to top Top  Next issue: Staying in Abilene  Next Issue

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See also Effective Meetings and Effective Communication at Work for more related articles.

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Group problem-solving sessions sometimes focus on where to begin, even when what we know about the problem is insufficient for making such decisions. In some cases, preliminary exploration of almost any aspect of the problem can be more helpful than debating what to explore. Available here and by RSS on October 2.

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