Virtual Meeting Multitasking - Should You Encourage or Discourage it in Your Small Business?

October 17, 2023

You want your employees to get done as much as possible. Still, not every attempt at improved productivity creates additional value. This dynamic has contributed to the significant debate around the rising post-COVID trend of multitasking during online meetings.

A recent survey from Microsoft found that 42% of respondents feel obligated to multitask during online meetings in order to keep up with their work. This could represent a healthy attempt to maximize productivity. Or it could point to a poorly balanced use of cooperation tools that became popular during COVID lockdowns.

Where do you stand? As a small business owner or startup founder who has remote or hybrid employees, what does this mean for you? Should you be worried about this? Or should you actively encourage it? This article looks to answer those questions.

Why is multitasking during meetings becoming more of a problem?

The pandemic made virtual meetings a common occurrence in almost every industry. During the shutdowns, these online options provided the only effective way to keep collaboration going. Now that COVID restrictions have largely lifted, many companies are sticking with remote meetings as a regular part of the company culture.

But maybe these events have become too routine. Almost one in six workers say they spend at least 12 hours a week in video conferences — or at least 30% of a traditional 40-hour workweek.

While many of these meetings are critical to moving projects forward, they also cut into time that could be used for other productive activities. This shows up in the data as well. Another survey suggested that around 70% of meetings prevent team members from doing other required work.

Given these pressures, many employees feel the need to multitask — completing other tasks while participating in online discussions.

What are employees multitasking on during meetings?

Typically, employees use this technique to keep up with their routine assignments. Facing a flood of online discussions, your team members still need to complete their day-to-day tasks. In an attempt to make the most of their time, they make an effort to do both at once.

There are pluses and minuses to this situation. On the one hand, this kind of multitasking highlights the fact that you have diligent, flexible employees. On the other, the fact that multitasking is necessary suggests that your team might be overworked — or at least overscheduled for online meetings.

The fact that multitasking is necessary suggests that your team might be overworked — or at least overscheduled for online meetings.

All this leads to the question: should you allow your employees to multitask during meetings? Or should you take steps to discourage it? To make that determination, first consider the upsides and drawbacks of the situation:

Pros of multitasking during meetings:

  • Multitasking lets your employees get the most out of their work hours.
  • By stretching productivity, you limit potential overtime pay. At the same time, your workers get more done during their normal work time, lowering the amount of work they need to take home.
  • Your team members have an easier time meeting deadlines.

Cons of multitasking during meetings:

  • Your employees have trouble concentrating in meetings, meaning they don't process any information provided.
  • Multitasking also prevents full participation in the process, limiting employee engagement and their ability to give high-value input.
  • The other tasks being performed during the meeting also receive less-than-total attention, potentially undermining the quality.

How to get the most out of online meetings at your small business

Whether you allow multitasking or take steps to prevent the practice is up to you. Largely, the right choice depends on the specifics of your small business. However, there are general considerations to keep in mind as you integrate video conferencing into your long-term collaboration plans.

Here are some steps you can take to get the most out of online meetings:

Set Expectations

Some aspects of meeting etiquette fall into the grey area of general social graces. However, as the employer, you have the ability to set policy. Whatever level of meeting multitasking you feel is appropriate and most productive, create a specific set of rules and communicate those to your team.

Allow Time for Meetings (Or Have Fewer of Them)

The fact that people feel the need to multitask says something about their workflow. They don't feel they have time to focus solely on the meeting without jeopardizing other deadlines. In other words, their schedules have gotten too full.

Look for ways to ease the burden. If you want to have people involved in group video conversations, structure their other expectations so they can concentrate completely on the discussions. Otherwise, look for ways to avoid having the meetings entirely, letting your employees commit their time and energy to their other tasks.

Keep Meetings Short

Look for ways to make meetings more efficient. It might be better to have an employee's total attention for 10 minutes than having them split their focus over the course of an hour. If you can have concentrated, streamlined discussions, you'll get the same level of collaboration without borrowing as much time from other responsibilities.

Only Include Necessary People

Along with keeping the talks focused, make sure that only core people are involved in the process. Informational presentations can often be handled through other means than a live event. By limiting the scope of the conversation, you preserve other people's time and open the door to a more intense, focused discussion.

Stick to Schedules and Have Hard End Times

Along with shortening your meetings and keeping them as focused as possible, it helps if their scheduling becomes as predictable as possible. This way, your employees can plan the rest of their tasks around the set meeting time.

In practice, this means scheduling meetings as far in advance as possible and attempting to keep things stable over time. (Continually changing meeting times can cause confusion and conflicts.) At the same time, get strict about ending meetings at the assigned time. If there is more to discuss, look to set a future conversation.

Take Everyone's Schedules Into Account

Talk to potential meeting participants ahead of time. Find out when they would be most available for a discussion and attempt to schedule the talks at a time when everybody can participate fully. By triangulating everyone's schedules, you raise the chance of a productive discussion.

Record Meetings for Future Reference

Not everyone can participate fully in every video meeting. For those that can't attend or have other work to perform, create a recording of the discussion. This way, others can catch up later.

Provide Minutes/Supplemental Materials

There are other ways to distribute information throughout your organization. A two-hour meeting might result in a short list of key bullet points. Summarize these notes as a document that can be passed around elsewhere, like on Slack or through email.

Deciding how to handle multitasking during meetings

The pandemic spurred an increase in virtual collaboration, which has altered many aspects of work habits and schedules. Companies and employees are still dealing with the implications of these changes. This has led to heated discussions about a number of subjects related to online collaboration in remote and hybrid work.

As part of this, there has been a rising debate around meeting multitasking. Whether you decide to allow this productivity technique, or try to prevent it, it's important as a business owner to understand why this is happening.

Whether you decide to allow [meeting multitasking], or try to prevent it, it's important as a business owner to understand why this is happening.

From there, you can weigh what it means for your employees' productivity and how you can best integrate video meetings into your overall routine. Use the information here to decide how you will handle setting expectations for online meeting etiquette in your small business or startup.