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Virtual Meeting Challenges: Stop Fighting Multitaskers – Part 2

The frustration of multitaskers was the topic of my last, in which I reminded readers of two things most of us already know: 1) Our brains really don’t allow us to actively think about two things at once, and 2) Most of us are not able to sustain our attention on something for more than about 40 minutes.

What can a virtual team facilitator do given these real, valid constraints of attendees? Below are five virtual meeting strategies that may mitigate the tempo-busting regular request to “repeat that, please.” They won’t work for every meeting so you need to be strategic about when you try to utilize these approaches. When you really need everyone present, mentally and physically, see how these work for you:

  1. Bribe attendees.

    Give your meeting attendees the resource they value most in exchange for their attention: time. If you normally have 60 minute meetings, commit to finishing in 45 if everyone commits to closing email and putting cell phones away. This is easier said than done, for sure, but most people would be willing to try it if it means 15 more minutes for something else.

  2. Schedule longer meetings.

    OK, I just suggested the opposite, but shorter meetings won’t always work. Sometimes the purpose of the meeting requires more than 45 minutes or the opportunity for a particular group of people to meet is fleeting and has to be seized.

    In this instance, schedule what might be a 90-minute meeting for two hours, but include two 15-minute breaks. Key to this approach is getting commitment to resume on time after breaks.

  3. Identify decisions to be made in the meeting invitation.

    The purpose of the meeting should always drive all other meeting planning as I have written in a previous blog, but it can take on additional importance in a virtual team meeting environment. Along with the agenda and other pre-meeting details sent ahead of time, highlighting the decisions to be made in a meeting can help for those who get distracted during virtual meetings.

  4. Consensus Schmensus – Take a Vote and Be Done Already

    Sometimes dictatorial decision making gets a bum rap. I can think of numerous situations and a variety of circumstances in which I’ve watch people wallow in the quagmire of consensus. Often this is because they confuse consensus with everyone getting everything they want, but even when it is just finding something everyone can support, it’s not always necessary to get to that point.

    Sometimes, it really would be OK for someone to make a decision without everyone’s blessing. Maybe it’s not what we all want, but at least we all get to move on. It’s not always a bad thing.

    In a virtual team meeting, when decisions come up, take a vote and if someone can’t register their vote because they aren’t paying attention, or because they’ve gotten away from their desk, they forfeit their vote. Set the expectation and let people know ahead of time that come decision-making time, we’ll be going around the virtual table and you get one chance to weigh in.

  5. Make Meeting Recordings Available as an Alternative to Attending

    Most online tools allow for recording of a session. Particularly for meetings which are for information sharing as opposed to decision making, a recording of a meeting made available to those who couldn’t attend may be an option. Not only does it provide flexibility for those who get the information via the recording, but it also may mean fewer attendees in the actual meeting which can mean less discussion, technical problems, etc.

    A major caveat with this, of course, is requiring that someone spend the time watching a recording when they may have been unable to attend because they were busy in another meeting. Sounds like a quick way to create 16-hour work days.

Clearly, not all of these will work or even make sense for every meeting. But of this we can be certain: Virtual team environments are not going away, none of us really multitasks like we think we can, and we can only stay focused for so long – which is shorter than the duration of most of our meetings. 

Our infatuation with the idea that we are capable of multitasking and therefore remain constructive participants in lengthy meetings isn’t serving anyone well. We are better off acknowledging our real, physical limitations and working to change our organizational meeting cultures to make better use of everyone’s time.

As I say when I teach, if what you’re doing is working well, then for heaven’s sake keep doing it. But if the tempo of your online meetings is handicapped with attendees who won’t, can’t, or don’t know how to stay as engaged as they need to be, try doing things a little differently. What do you have to lose? Probably not their attention.

I’d love to hear from you if you try (or have tried) any of these approaches and how effective they are for you. And if you have other approaches, I’d love to hear about them, as well.

Don’t forget to leave your comments below.

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