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Stressed-out employees are multitasking to survive virtual meetings–and bosses hate it

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Many managers–perhaps even you–feel frustrated that their employees may be multitasking during videoconference meetings. In fact, when helping clients figure out their hybrid work policies, many managers tell me they want employees to return to the office so that they can be confident their staff are actually paying attention and are fully present during meetings.

Let's not beat around the bush: If your employees are fiddling with Slack while nodding through yet another Zoom presentation, the chances are: It’s not them, it’s you. Oh yes, I'm looking at you, the manager who can’t seem to organize meetings with focused agendas and optimal attendees.

Our meeting culture needs an overhaul, and the solution lies not in blaming the employees but in recognizing our shortcomings as decision-makers.

The unseen world of multitasking during virtual meetings

Most managers would assume that the bulk of multitasking during meetings consists of personal distractions—texting friends or even doing some online shopping. But let's dismantle that myth. The reality is more nuanced and, ironically, more work-related than you'd think. Surprisingly, evidence from the most prominent scholar on remote work Nick Bloom shows only a paltry 5% of your employees are texting or talking to family and friends during Zoom or Teams meetings.

The primary distraction? You guessed it—additional work tasks. Work-related multitasking occurs in roughly 30% of all virtual meetings, according to academic research using Microsoft Teams data. This includes actions like responding to emails, juggling Slack messages, and even editing a document. Now, I know what you're thinking: "Well, if it's work-related, then what's the harm?" The harm lies in the fact that this phenomenon is most prominent in meetings that share specific characteristics—being long, having large numbers of attendees, recurring on the schedule, happening in the morning, and featuring a majority of cameras turned off.

But let's take a step back. Multitasking isn’t the devil it's often made out to be. In fact, some people say it helps them stay productive during parts of meetings that are irrelevant to them. It's a survival tactic, a way to squeeze productivity out of time that would otherwise go to waste. The real issue is, why are they in irrelevant meetings in the first place? And it's an issue worth contemplating the next time you catch someone multitasking.

Let's not act as though this is a remote work issue alone. In the world of in-person meetings, the same distractions occur—laptop use, phone checking, and yes, even the discreet side whisper. So, if you're clinging to the idea that returning to the office will solve these issues, think again. The problem runs much deeper.

Blame the manager

It’s easy to chalk up multitasking to human proclivity for distraction. However, labeling it as “just the way people are” is not only dismissive but also woefully inaccurate. When a sizable portion of your team is multitasking, it's not a coincidence or an anomaly; it's a glaring indicator that should set off alarms for you as a leader. This isn't just about a few distracted individuals; this is symptomatic of a much larger issue, often tied to poor meeting design and, more broadly, a communication breakdown within the team or organization.

As a leader, one of your primary responsibilities is to create an environment that empowers your team to succeed. When a significant percentage of your team is multitasking during meetings, it implies that you haven't succeeded in making that environment conducive to full engagement. Now, you may argue that employees have a responsibility to stay focused. However, as the person setting the tone, structure, and agenda of these meetings, you have a more considerable share of the responsibility to keep them dialed in.

The problem isn't that your team members are choosing to be distracted but rather that they feel compelled to do so because of inefficiencies in the meeting structure. Maybe the agenda is too broad, or the meeting is too long, or there are too many voices in the room. Either way, something about the format of your meetings is driving your team to seek productivity elsewhere. This kind of behavior isn’t just occurring in a vacuum–it’s a response to the environment you've created or allowed to persist.

Moreover, this disengagement extends beyond the meetings themselves. When your team is multitasking in meetings, the implication is that there's not enough time outside of meetings to accomplish their tasks. And that is a massive issue. It shows that the organization or team may be operating in a perpetual state of "meeting overload," leaving little room for focused, uninterrupted work. Thus, multitasking isn't the disease–it's merely a symptom of a more systemic problem that often starts at the top.

In essence, when you see multitasking as a recurrent issue, it’s an opportunity—not for disciplinary action against your employees, but for introspection and constructive change in how you structure communication and time. Are you merely holding meetings out of habit, or are they genuinely needed? Are you inviting too many people, diluting individual contributions? Are you failing to provide an agenda that holds attendees accountable for their engagement? These are the questions you, as a leader, need to ask and address. Failing to do so will ensure that your team continues to multitask, not out of defiance, but as a coping mechanism to navigate through the maze of inefficiency that has been set before them.

Fewer, more focused meetings

Large meetings are killing productivity. We've all sat in those meetings. The ones with 20-plus people where everyone gets a chance to speak, dragging the event on for hours. You might call it inclusive–I call it a productivity massacre. Simply put, the larger the meeting, the less individual engagement you'll find. How much input can someone offer when they are one in a sea of many? Not much.

You've probably got them in your calendar: recurring meetings, every week, until the end of time. Sounds like a good idea? Wrong again. If people know they’ll have a second, third, or even fourth chance to get their points across, they are less likely to engage fully each time. The redundancy of these meetings encourages distraction, allowing multitasking to seep in.

Now, here's an idea you likely haven't spent enough time considering: asynchronous communication. Emails, Slack messages, and shared documents—these are tools that allow your team to communicate without needing to be available at the same time. Asynchronous communication enables your employees to respond when it's most convenient for them, thus preserving the sacred realm of deep work hours and respecting individual productivity rhythms

Forget what you've been told about meetings being the cornerstone of effective team communication. If we're honest, many meetings serve as little more than time sinks that dilute productivity. The good news is that you have the power to change this pattern, and as I tell my clients when training their managers, the key lies in starting with fewer, but more impactful, meetings.

Revamping your approach to meetings is not just about minimizing distractions or increasing engagement in the short term. It's about laying the groundwork for a more efficient, collaborative, and motivated team in the long run.

If you want to hold meetings that not only command attention but also foster productivity, you need to take a hard look at how you're facilitating them.

Gleb Tsipursky, Ph.D. (a.k.a. “the office whisperer”), helps tech and finance industry executives drive collaboration, innovation, and retention in hybrid work. He serves as the CEO of the boutique future-of-work consultancy Disaster Avoidance Experts. He is the bestselling author of seven books, including Never Go With Your Gut and Leading Hybrid and Remote Teams. His expertise comes from over 20 years of consulting for Fortune 500 companies from Aflac to Xerox and over 15 years in academia as a behavioral scientist at UNC–Chapel Hill and Ohio State.

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This story was originally featured on Fortune.com