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If you multitask during meetings, your team will, too

Ryan Fuller, Nina Shikaloff, Renne Cullinan, Shani Harmon

January 25, 2018

Managers have hard jobs. They coordinate the work of their teams, align this work with company goals, serve as a primary source of professional development for their employees, deliver results, and many other critical tasks (all while keeping people engaged). We’ve previously written about what great managers do differently, but even the best managers at the most successful companies are not fully aware of how their work habits, such as multitasking during meetings, can impact those they supervise. Our latest research allows us to begin quantifying how these habits can cause significant—and often undesirable—ripple effects.

The transition from individual contributor to manager expands the influence of a person’s work habits. The more senior they become, the more this influence is amplified. Unfortunately, managers typically have very limited visibility into what their own behaviors may be signaling to their team and how the team might be reacting. Microsoft Workplace Analytics allows us to analyze the digital signals from anonymized and aggregated data from meetings, email, HR, and other data sources to better understand these impacts. We’ve used this technology to study the behaviors of tens of thousands of managers in several large companies and found some consistent patterns.

This article outlines two common signals that manager work habits unintentionally send to their teams, their impact, and recommendations for lessening unintended consequences.

Working after hours

This sends the signal, “When I’m on, you need to be too.” We’ve found a significant and consistent correlation between the amount of time managers send email and organize meetings after-hours (think late nights, weekends, etc.) and the amount of time their direct reports do the same.

In one Fortune 100 technology company, for example, we found that every hour that people managers spend after-hours translates to 20 minutes of additional direct report time spent after-hours. The numbers vary, but we’ve found significant correlations hold true for several other companies as well.

Analyzing Sunday night email patterns highlights one way this plays out. It’s not uncommon for people to get a head start on their week by catching up on Sunday evenings, and typically, people do this with no intention that email recipients will read or respond right away. Unfortunately, that’s often not what happens. Our analysis suggests that when managers start their work week on Sunday night, so do their direct reports.

Intentionally or not, managers that frequently work late nights are signaling an expectation of similar behavior to their teams, and their teams are responding in kind. This may not be a good thing. According to the General Social Survey, 48 percent of employees say that work sometimes or often interferes with family life; this habit is likely a strong contributing factor. The negative impacts are further illustrated by recent Gallup research concluding that “U.S. workers who email for work and who spend more hours working remotely outside of normal working hours are more likely to experience a substantial amount of stress on any given day than workers who do not exhibit these behaviors.”

What you should do:

1. Talk to your team about expectations. Make it clear that just because you choose to work nights or weekends, you do not expect that of others. Be mindful of sending mixed signals such as encouraging people to go dark, then expecting immediate responses after hours. Authenticity and consistency are essential.

2. When you’re processing emails at night, schedule them to go out in the morning or simply save them in a draft folder until the next day.

3. Minimize the number of people on your distribution list. This is a good habit any time, but particularly after hours. As the scenario below demonstrates, the small step of reducing the number of people on an email chain has a dramatic impact on your organization.

Multitasking in meetings

This sends the signal, “It’s OK to not pay attention.” Managers that frequently send emails during meetings are, according to our analysis, are 2.2 times more likely to have direct reports who also multi-task in meetings.

The ready explanation is that multi-tasking is a necessary survival strategy in days filled with back-to-back meetings. Yet the data does not bear this out: multi-tasking seems to be a choice or habit, not an inevitability. In the chart below, each dot represents a manager. The X axis in the number of hours they spend in meetings each week and the Y axis is the percentage of time they multi-task. This analysis shows a wide variance in the multi-tasking rates from 0 percent to over 70 percent that appear unrelated to the number of hours in meetings. Managers with 10-15 hours of meetings are just about as likely to multi-task as those with over 30 hours of meetings.

While multitasking can, at times, be an efficient way to work, most of us have had the experience of sitting next to the person busy clattering on their keyboard during a meeting. It’s distracting. And, ultimately, multitasking is task switching. When we shoot off a quick email during a meeting, we miss that part of the conversation. We – and others – may not even notice, but it means we have gaps in our understanding of what took place. That can lead to different interpretations of a decision, missed opportunities to provide critical guidance, or inconsistent follow through on action agreements. Beyond that, multitasking can signal to others that we don’t value their time or their contributions. When you and your entire team engages in this behavior, little good can come from it.

What you should do:

1. For a week or two, take note of when you multitask and why. If it is because you’re not essential to the purpose of the meeting, ask the meeting owner to remove you.

2. Convert 60-minute meetings to 45 minutes. By shortening them, you get the dual benefit of a more focused discussion and an extra 15 minutes each hour to catch up on emails.

3. Cluster your meetings during portions of the day or days of the week. That leaves chunks of time open for getting focused work done or being available to your team for a quick five-minute conversation that would otherwise turn into a complicated email thread or 30-minute meeting.

4. Take 10 minutes in your next staff meeting to discuss this with your direct reports. Make a shared commitment to show up more fully present to meetings for that week and debrief the experience in a subsequent staff meeting.

5. Use video conferencing during web conference calls to reduce the temptation to multitask.

Every manager, even the best, can fall into the evening-emailing and multitasking-at-meetings traps. These behaviors may seem harmless on the surface, but our research shows that even the small things can have outsized effects on a team. Every leader should be cognizant of this when they’re about to check their email or hit “send” at all the wrong times.

Originally published on Harvard Business Review

Portrait of Ryan Fuller

Ryan Fuller

Ryan Fuller was the CEO and co-founder of VoloMetrix, a leading people analytics company acquired by Microsoft in 2015. Within Microsoft, Ryan leads a business unit focused on making organizational analytics capabilities broadly available. Previously he was a management consultant at Bain & Company.

Portrait of Nina Shikaloff

Nina Shikaloff

Nina Shikaloff is a Senior Program Manager at Microsoft, where she delivers actionable insights for improving organizational efficiency and talent management to Fortune 500 companies using Workplace Analytics. She previously led analytic consulting, R&D and product management functions at FICO and InfoCentricity.

Portrait of Renne Cullinan

Renne Cullinan

Renee Cullinan is the chief executive officer and co-founder of Stop Meeting Like This. She partners with senior leaders and change agents to adapt their Collaboration Cultures in pursuit of sustainable performance. She has spent more than 20 years as an organizational effectiveness consultant working with Fortune 500 corporations.

Portrait of Shani Harmon

Shani Harmon

Shani Harmon is the chief delivery officer and co-founder of Stop Meeting Like This, an organization dedicated to revolutionizing how work gets done within organizations. She has spent her career helping Fortune 500 leaders make their organizations more productive, innovative, and energizing.