Why you should stop obsessing about distractions during remote meetings

dealing with meeting distractions

In the minds of many managers, the tools that allow us to collaborate at a distance are a double-edged sword. Sure, your employee can get that last-minute email back to you from the check-in line at the airport using their smartphone, but what’s stopping her from using the same device to text message during meetings? Videoconferencing lets you connect with your team 24-7, but it’s hard to know if they’re listening intently or honing their doodling skills.

This fear of distraction may be understandable, but it’s also misplaced according to a recent post on Management Issues by Wayne Turmel. Among several tips to keep team members engaged when communicating at a distance, Turmel suggests simply acknowledging that being far away can make us a bit paranoid. We demand more reassurance and attention from remote colleagues than we would ever expect face to face:

Just because they do something else for a moment doesn’t mean they’re not hanging in there. If you’ve never “zoned out” during a face-to-face meeting, you’re a better man than I, Gunga Din. Few of us are so riveted by what’s going on that we can’t do something else for a brief period then re-engage. Unless you’re specifically asking for their input, they will probably be back.

Turmel makes a great point about the insecurity that is born of working via the web rather than in person, but there are other reasons to stop stressing about getting your team’s undivided attention during remote meetings. Simply put, harnessing “backchannel” communications such as texting or tweeting, may work better than prohibiting them, whether you’re presenting in person or from 10,000 miles away.

For example, SXSW presenters Christopher Fahey and Timothy Meaney have argued on A List Apart that the old expectation of a passive, silent audience is out of date and speakers should aim to engage rather than enrapture their audiences. They focus is on traditional conference speakers but the point holds for those presenting or speaking remotely:

Conventional conference wisdom is that speakers are fighting a war for the audience’s attention. On one side, there’s the speaker, armed with beautiful slides, succinct bullet points, a commanding stage presence, and a great speech. On the other side is Twitter, Facebook, e-mail, YouTube, etc. The audience is in the middle, torn between datastreams.

The backchannel irritates many speakers. But giving the speaker the power to cut audiences off from the backchannel would be, we think, the wrong solution…. It’s time to empower the audience…. We need to react in meaningful ways. Not just clapping or booing, but actually communicating and conversing…. The model of the rapt audience so enthralled by a speaker that you can hear a pin drop actually prevents this kind of meaningful reaction.

Their solution is a Twitter-like app to allow audience members react to the speaker and each others’ comments in real time. But managers looking to utilize rather than suppress backchannel interactions on a conference call, for example, don’t need to invest in any special technology.

As we’ve covered here on WebWorkerDaily before, experts like Seth Godin and veteran remote managers like Orange Business Services’ Mark Fitzpatrick both recommend simply allowing participants to use text chat as a second communication channel running under the main speaker during conference calls and remote meetings.

“When you put text chat in parallel with a voice conference call, magical things happen,” Godin says, suggesting this controlled distraction increases participation, enables real-time commenting and tracks the flow of later ideas for later examination.

When it comes to distractions during remote meetings are you a hawk or a dove? Should managers give tech-enabled (perhaps tech-engendered) distractible minds a channel to productively wander or crack down on the equivalent of high-tech doodling?

Image courtesy of Flick user DoNotLick.

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