29 September 2021

Wired: “It’s True. Everyone is Multitasking in Video Meetings”

The etiquette for remote work meetings is weird. You don’t have to wear pants, but allowing your eyes to dart around your screen can seem rude and disrespectful, a giveaway that you’re distracted by another digital task. And once you turn the camera off, multitasking can mean folding laundry, grocery shopping, or anything else that needs doing.

If you tend to multitask in video meetings, you’re not alone. A new study of Microsoft employees finds that people multitask more frequently in larger and longer meetings, and that multitasking happens far more often in recurring meetings than during ad hoc meetings. Meetings held in the morning have higher rates of multitasking than at other times of day, and multitasking takes place six times as often in video meetings lasting more than 80 minutes compared with meetings that take 20 minutes or less.

There’s an opportunity with remote meetings to just ‘sort-of’ attend a meeting, says Microsoft chief scientist Jaime Teevan. You can skip a meeting and watch it at double speed if it was recorded. You can have it playing in the background while you do other things and listen for important points.

Khari Johnson

I must admit, I’m doing this myself increasingly often lately (to be perfectly clear, multitaking in remote meetings, not joining without wearing pants). If you must be at your computer for that set length of time, you might as well get less important work out of the way, and free time for more focused tasks later – or for a well-needed break. The more participants in a meeting, the lower the chance you need to intervene; you just need to pay attention when your name gets mentioned, and to politely greet everyone when joining and leaving the call. And when meetings are audio-only, this becomes even easier.

Illustration of worker on laptop with many arms doing various tasks
Illustration: Sam Whitney; Getty Images

The regular ‘catch-up’ meetings with teams that middle management likes to organize while working from home are also great candidates for multitasking on the side; in my case, most of the work-related topics discussed are barely relevant for my tasks, and I don’t know my colleagues well enough to be invested in their personal lives.

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