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?
- Finding the Third Way
- When a team is divided, and agreement seems out of reach, attempts to resolve the conflict usually focus
on the differences between the contrasting positions. Focusing instead on their similarities can be
a productive technique for reaching agreement.
- 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.
- The End-to-End Cost of Meetings: II
- Few of us realize where all the costs of meetings really are. Some of the most significant cost sources
are outside the meeting room. Here's Part II of our exploration of meeting costs.
- Perfectionism and Avoidance
- Avoiding tasks we regard as unpleasant, boring, or intimidating is a pattern known as procrastination.
Perfectionism is another pattern. The interplay between the two makes intervention a bit tricky.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming July 8: Multi-Expert Consensus
- Some working groups consist of experts from many fields. When they must reach a decision by consensus, members have several options. Defining those options in advance can help the group reach a decision with all its relationships intact. Available here and by RSS on July 8.
- And on July 15: Disjoint Concept Vocabularies
- In disputes or in problem solving sessions, when we can't seem to come to agreement, we often attribute the difficulty to miscommunication, histories of disagreements, hidden agendas, or "personality clashes." Sometimes the cause is much simpler. Sometimes the concept vocabularies of the parties don't overlap. Available here and by RSS on July 15.
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