Distraction, interruption, and the reality of multi-tasking

Myers Barnes MultitaskingWe’re doing a lot of video conference calls these days, with more people working remotely. I’ve become keenly aware of the impact of distraction, interruption, and the reality of multi-tasking, which is to say, while you’re attempting to do several things at once, you’re not doing any of them to your full potential.

The other day, I was in a Zoom video sales meeting with 10 people. If you’re familiar with the Zoom platform, you know that the attendees’ faces pop up in a Brady Bunch-like montage. The more participants in the meeting, the smaller the photo, so as the attendees dialed in, one by one, the images shrunk.

Meanwhile, we waited for the CEO to join. He is notoriously 10 to 15 minutes late to meetings. The unwritten rule is to show up before the executive, which still gives people a little latitude in their perspective of being “on time”.

We waited, having casual conversation but careful to avoid any discussion of the scheduled topic prior to the CEO’s appearance. I looked from one person to the next. I saw more than one individual texting and two others looking to the side, apparently at another screen. Another person sat back casually, clearly not engaged in the discussion.

For all I knew, these “participants” were posting their Work From Home pantless images on Instagram during the call, ordering pizza, or watching their kids fighting over a game in the next room. These sales people could have also been communicating with buyers, but it didn’t matter. While they should have been fully focused on the meeting, their attention was diverted.

Video conferencing isn’t just a short-term solution. 

Do you really think, when things return to whatever normal is, that we’ll abandon the convenience of this tool? Whether you’re down the hall or across the country, video calls will continue. So, get used to doing it correctly.

Let’s get back to that conference.

The leader showed up 11 minutes late—or right on schedule, according to his past behavior. There was the usual excuse of “I got caught up on a call”. Then he dove right in.

What happened next was intriguing. The people who had been texting continued to be distracted by their phones. I noticed others who were occasionally distracted by something else in their workspace. And the “leaner” continued to relax.

I expected a “snap to it” attention, perhaps a lingering reflection of my military school days. It didn’t happen. The meeting remained casual, and the CEO seemed either oblivious to it or unfazed.

While listening to Mr. Executive, I was also receiving text messages from people on the call. These texts were not related to the discussion, but something else that had caught their attention.

The meeting concluded with each of us acknowledging our assignments and agreeing to the date and time for the next meeting. Click. It ended.

A week later

The day prior to the next call, I sent an email to the CEO:

“During the last team Zoom meeting, I was getting text messages and communication from various attendees. There needs to be a policy that comes from the top. It’s absolutely essential that there are no calls, texts, or other outside communication during a meeting. Complete focus is required. Otherwise, it’s a complete waste of time and funds.”

He called me right away, wanting to know who and what the communication was. I explained, “That’s not important. What matters is the overall behavior, the lack of undivided attention that happens when people are not physically together for a meeting.”

He grunted his agreement, and I continued. “I have big meetings planned. You have big meetings planned. We need to be focused and on time.”

Silence. He knew what I was referring to.

“Look at it this way. You’re paying them for their time. When you have 10 people waiting 10 minutes, that’s 100 minutes of cumulative productivity that’s wasted.”

“True,” he acknowledged. “I need to be more cognizant, I guess.”

I went on to say, “We need to make shifts in our systems and processes to adapt to this change. We are assembled together for a specified objective. Video meetings should be conducted as though we are in the same room. Show up on time, be dressed appropriately, and prohibit distraction of any kind. Turn off the phone, close the door, and wear headphones if you need to tune out noise.”

I reminded him of something Brian Tracy had said. “Casualness causes casualty.”

Here’s the leadership lesson: While it’s great to promote a friendly, casual atmosphere that fosters good relationships, be clear about boundaries. 

Act like we are all in person, because we are.


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