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What executives get wrong about employee multitasking during meetings

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Reuters/Jonathan Ernst
Nothing wrong with getting a little sun time in during meetings.
  • Sarah Todd
By Sarah Todd

Senior reporter, Quartz and Quartz at Work

Published Last updated

Bosses tend to put a lot of stock in face time. But the rise of remote and hybrid work during the pandemic has pushed some companies to check their culture of presenteeism, and to acknowledge that employees’ productivity and performance often has little relationship to the amount of time they spend at the office.

That said, even bosses that have become more accepting of remote work may still care about a different kind of face time: Employees keeping their cameras on during virtual meetings.

In a recent survey of 200 executives at US companies, 92% said that employees who turn their cameras off and remain mute “probably don’t have a long-term future at their company.” What’s more, 93% of executives assume that employees who stay dark on Zoom are less engaged overall, according to the survey from the software company Vyopta.

Such news could spur some remote workers to heave a resigned sigh and flip their cameras on. But a better solution might be for executives and managers to reconsider their attitudes toward multitasking during meetings.

Why people multitask during remote meetings

Turning off your camera and microphone during a meeting isn’t necessarily a sign you’re checked out. Some people may simply have Zoom fatigue caused by self-consciousness about how they look on camera—a condition that’s particularly likely to affect women. Others may want to hide a messy bedroom or mute the sound of their children arguing with one another in the next room.

But even if workers are multitasking during Zoom meetings, they may have a valid reason for doing so—too many meetings in the first place. “Nearly half of executives (48%) cite too many meetings as a reason why employees do not talk during virtual meetings, saying they had too many calls that could’ve been an email,” the Vyopta survey reports.

Indeed, meeting creep during the pandemic grew as managers scheduled more check-ins and prep calls to compensate for not being able to see their employees face-to-face. A November 2021 report from calendar software startup ReclaimAI estimated that the average professional now spends 21.5 hours in meetings per week, compared with 15.1 hours per week in February 2020. If managers are really concerned that people aren’t paying attention during calls, they should consider whether that’s a sign that they need fewer, shorter meetings on the schedule.

Ending the stigma against meeting multitasking

If people turn their cameras off because they’re multitasking during meetings, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s true that task switching makes it harder for people to pay attention to a single subject-—if an employee is drafting a memo during a Zoom meeting, they’re probably going to have a hard time recalling what their coworkers said, for example—but there are ways to multitask that don’t diminish people’s ability to focus, and may even improve their concentration.

Research shows, for example, that doodling during lectures can actually help students better retain information, and that people who participate in walking meetings feel more engaged with their jobs. People who fold laundry or lift weights during a Zoom meeting are able to do those tasks more or less on autopilot—which means that they’re not actually distracted from the meeting at hand.

While it may well be disconcerting for executives to find themselves speaking on Zoom to rows of blank squares, they shouldn’t assume that employees aren’t tuned in. And if they want to see employees’ faces more frequently, the solution may be to change cultural expectations about what activities are acceptable during calls.

Earlier in the pandemic, the city council president of Fresno, California, told The Wall Street Journal that he begins meetings by asking colleagues to announce what else they’re doing at the moment, so that others don’t get distracted by background noises. The chief financial officer at a tactical gear company, meanwhile, said that she left the camera on while going about her chores. “Life is a mess right now,” she said, “and we just have to embrace it.”

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