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.
- 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.
Do you spend your days scurrying from meeting to meeting? Do you ever wonder if all these meetings are really necessary? (They aren't) Or whether there isn't some better way to get this work done? (There is) Read 101 Tips for Effective Meetings to learn how to make meetings much more productive and less stressful — and a lot more rare. Order Now!
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More articles on Effective Meetings:
- Irrational Self-Interest
- When we try to influence others, especially large groups or entire companies, we sometimes create packages
of incentives and disincentives that are intended to affect behavior. These strategies usually assume
that people make choices on rational grounds. Is this assumption valid?
- When the Chair Is a Bully: II
- Assertiveness by chairs of meetings isn't a problem in itself, but it becomes problematic when the chair's
dominance deprives the meeting of contributions from some of its members. Here's Part II of our exploration
of the problem of bully chairs.
- Agenda Despots: I
- Many of us abhor meetings. Words like boring, silly, and waste come to mind. But for some meeting chairs,
meetings aren't boring at all, because they fear losing control of the agenda. To maintain control,
they use the techniques of the Agenda Despots.
- Favor Symmetric Virtual Meetings
- Virtual meetings are notorious for generating more frustration than useful output. One cause of the
difficulties is asymmetry in the way we connect to virtual meetings.
- Naming Ideas
- Participants in group discussions sometimes reference each other's contributions using the contributor's
name. This risks offending the contributor or others who believe the idea is theirs. Naming ideas is
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming October 12: Downscoping Under Pressure: II
- We sometimes "downscope" projects to bring them back on budget and schedule when they're headed for overruns. Downscoping doesn't always work. Cognitive biases like the sunk cost effect and confirmation bias can distort decisions about how to downscope. Available here and by RSS on October 12.
- And on October 19: Bullying by Proxy: I
- The form of workplace bullying perhaps most often observed involves a bully and a target. Other forms are less obvious. One of these, bullying by proxy, is especially difficult to control, because it so easily evades most anti-bullying policies. Available here and by RSS on October 19.
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