Is Your Team Multitasking to Survive Your Videconference Meetings?

5 min read

Many managers – perhaps you – feel really 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, 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. But wait, before you get defensive, let’s consider some facts. You see, 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? It’s worth contemplating that 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.

Why 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.

Here’s where the rubber meets the road: the problem isn’t that your team members are choosing to be distracted; the problem is 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 perhaps 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.

Key Areas to Address

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 a 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, 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

Your Next Steps: Fewer, More Focused Meetings

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.

When you do decide that a meeting is essential, the attendee list should be your first consideration. Every person in that virtual room should be someone whose input is genuinely needed. Ask yourself, “Who really needs to be here?” If you can’t come up with a good reason for an individual to attend, strike their name from the list. The leaner the attendee list, the more likely it is that everyone present will have a role to play, which naturally encourages active participation and minimizes the room for multitasking.

However, a smaller list alone won’t solve the issue. It has to be paired with a well-thought-out agenda that necessitates active involvement from all attendees. No one should be in that meeting room—virtually or physically—just to nod their heads or fill a seat. The agenda should require input, questioning, or at least some form of active engagement from everyone. When people know they have a role to play, they are less likely to disengage and turn to multitasking as a way to cope with a dull meeting.

If you’ve taken these steps—fewer, more purposeful meetings with carefully considered attendee lists and interactive agendas—and find that people are still multitasking, it’s a sign you need to dig deeper. The problem may not be the meetings per se but rather some undercurrent of team dynamics or individual motivations that you haven’t yet identified. This could range from poorly defined roles within the team, which lead to lack of ownership and accountability, to more intricate issues like cultural mismatches, misaligned incentives, or even personal crises affecting focus and productivity.

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. Meeting reforms are just the tip of the iceberg. If you find that even after implementing these changes, the multitasking persists, you’ve just uncovered a valuable diagnostic tool pointing you toward more deeply rooted issues that need your attention. Ignoring these signs will not make them go away; instead, they’ll fester and possibly metastasize into larger, more unmanageable problems. Your role as a leader is not just to facilitate meetings but to create an ecosystem where productivity and focus are not just expected but organically cultivated.

In the End, It’s All About Engagement

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. Understand that while multitasking may offer a band-aid solution for the employee, it reveals a gaping wound in your management style and communication strategy. So don’t blame the employees for trying to juggle tasks; restructure your approach, and you’ll find the focus you so earnestly desire from your team.

Key Take-Away

Employee multitasking in virtual meetings is often work-related, driven by poorly organized, lengthy, and unengaging sessions. Managers must rethink meeting culture for better focus and employee engagement. Share on X

Image credit: Christina Morillo/pexels

Dr. Gleb Tsipursky was lauded as “Office Whisperer” and “Hybrid Expert” by The New York Times for helping leaders use hybrid work to improve retention and productivity while cutting costs. He serves as the CEO of the boutique future-of-work consultancy Disaster Avoidance Experts. Dr. Gleb wrote the first book on returning to the office and leading hybrid teams after the pandemic, his best-seller Returning to the Office and Leading Hybrid and Remote Teams: A Manual on Benchmarking to Best Practices for Competitive Advantage (Intentional Insights, 2021). He authored seven books in total, and is best know for his global bestseller, Never Go With Your Gut: How Pioneering Leaders Make the Best Decisions and Avoid Business Disasters (Career Press, 2019). His cutting-edge thought leadership was featured in over 650 articles and 550 interviews in Harvard Business Review, Forbes, Inc. Magazine, USA Today, CBS News, Fox News, Time, Business Insider, Fortune, and elsewhere. His writing was translated into Chinese, Korean, German, Russian, Polish, Spanish, French, and other languages. His expertise comes from over 20 years of consulting, coaching, and speaking and training for Fortune 500 companies from Aflac to Xerox. It also comes from over 15 years in academia as a behavioral scientist, with 8 years as a lecturer at UNC-Chapel Hill and 7 years as a professor at Ohio State. A proud Ukrainian American, Dr. Gleb lives in Columbus, Ohio. In his free time, he makes sure to spend abundant quality time with his wife to avoid his personal life turning into a disaster. Contact him at Gleb[at]DisasterAvoidanceExperts[dot]com, follow him on LinkedIn @dr-gleb-tsipursky, Twitter @gleb_tsipursky, Instagram @dr_gleb_tsipursky, Facebook @DrGlebTsipursky, Medium @dr_gleb_tsipursky, YouTube, and RSS, and get a free copy of the Assessment on Dangerous Judgment Errors in the Workplace by signing up for the free Wise Decision Maker Course at