Can't Stay Focused In Remote Meetings? You're Not Alone

And it's okay

Key Takeaways

  • Workers often multitask in meetings, and the chance of it surges as a meeting drags on.
  • Not all multitasking is bad, however, and "positive multitasking" can improve productivity.
  • Remote work platforms could add new features that nudge workers towards tasks relevant to a meeting.
Someone speaking to other people on a video call.

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If you work remotely, there’s a good chance you’ve multitasked during a meeting in the past week—and you’re hardly alone.

A new paper released by Microsoft puts numbers to the problem. While multitasking was rare in short, small meetings, it surged to near-universal levels in meetings that dragged on for more than an hour. However, it’s not all bad news: the paper, which focused on the use of Microsoft Teams, suggests several ways workers might improve their focus.

"FocusAssist for Windows has already shipped and could be a huge help here," Dr. Mary Czerwinski, a partner researcher and research manager at Microsoft, said over email. "Scheduling Focus Time through Cortana is another available option in Outlook."

What’s a Remote Worker to Do? 

Multitasking in a meeting is often viewed as rude or counterproductive, and the paper found this sometimes proved true. However, the researchers argue a more complex point. Not all multitasking is negative, and tools can be used to guide remote workers towards positive results.

Participants detailed the benefits of positive multitasking in an anonymous diary. "I’ve been less frustrated by meetings that weren’t very useful to me," said one.

Others said they appreciate the choice to pay close attention when required, then focus elsewhere when it’s not. Participants said multitasking helped them find information, like related files or email exchanges, relevant to a meeting.

... a groan-inducing 80-minute marathon is over six times more likely to encourage multitasking.

Dr. Czerwinski said remote workers using Microsoft Teams or Windows can turn to Focus Assist and Focus Time to remove distractions not relevant to a meeting and carve out time to focus on specific tasks. The paper favors any tool that pushes aside outside demands on workers’ attention while in a meeting. 

New, better features in remote work platforms could go even further to encourage positive multitasking. The paper proposes a meeting-specific “focus mode” to help workers multitask in ways relevant to a meeting, like opening emails or files in a meeting’s interface instead of another window or program. This would encourage positive multitasking while eliminating distractions found in other programs.

The researchers also suggest improved agenda tools that let workers leave meetings early or join mid-meeting if only portions of the meeting are relevant. This could combat the arch enemy of every attention span: long, boring meetings. 

Remote Workers Tap Out In Long Meetings

Multitasking wasn’t especially common when all meetings were aggregated: about 30% of meetings involved email multitasking, and roughly 24% saw file multitasking. 

But that changed with duration. Unsurprisingly, meetings shorter than 20 minutes showed few instances of multitasking, but ramped up with shocking speed as a meeting drug on.

A parent working from home on a video call while also talking to a child.

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A meeting 20 to 40 minutes in length was nearly twice as likely to send attendees scrambling for other work, and a groan-inducing 80-minute marathon was over six times more likely to see workers distracted. 

Meeting size—as in, the number of people attending—was also crucial. One-on-one meetings encouraged the least multitasking, and a third person hardly changed the result. But dipping into other tasks became likely as more faces appeared in a video call. Multitasking was over twice as likely in a meeting with 10 or more people.

One participant detailed a relatable motivation. "In the big meetings, like town halls, I tend to stop and actually listen when something of interest is being said," said the participant. "The rest of the time, I seem to not focus on work at all."

The data included another weaker but more surprising result: scheduled meetings are bad news. A scheduled meeting was around one and half times more likely to encourage multitasking than an ad-hoc meeting. Of scheduled meetings, recurring meetings were the most fertile grounds for distraction. 

"How remote meetings are scheduled and structured are significantly associated with when and to what extent people divide their attentions," the paper concludes. So before you press send on an hour-long meeting invite, reconsider—unless you want to give coworkers time to clear out their inbox.

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