Woman looking at phone while on zoom meeting

The downfall of Zoom meetings

And the impact on productivity at work

Written by Professor Gary Martin FAIM
3 minute read
Woman looking at phone while on zoom meeting

If you work in a remote or hybrid setting, there’s every chance that a marathon of virtual meetings consumes a large chunk of your working day.

With so many hours spent on Zoom, Teams or other online platforms, you’ve likely come across the occasional colleague who appears to be “out to lunch” during the course of the meeting.

As it turns out, zoning out in online meetings is an increasingly common phenomenon causing some bosses to question their overall effectiveness.

We’ve all witnessed the many unintended cringeworthy, horrifying and downright embarrassing moments that have plagued online meetings in recent times.

A co-worker takes a laptop to the bathroom but forgets to turn the camera off. Another stands up from behind a desk revealing nothing but their underwear. A barking dog in the background can’t be bribed to stay quiet.

Yet there’s also another set of behind-the-scenes activities that take place during online meetings that has grabbed the attention of those in charge.

It appears it’s becoming increasingly common for workers to partially disengage from an online meeting to attend to a range of other tasks.

The tell-tale signs are well known and there for all to see.

Fifteen minutes into an online meeting and eyes start to dart all over the screen. It’s a dead giveaway that your colleagues are distracted by other digital tasks.

And switching the camera off altogether will give to way folding laundry, playing video games, stacking dishes or anything else that needs doing.

The impact on productivity

A recent survey has revealed that a staggering 80 per cent of us admit to zoning out more in online meetings than those conducted in person.

While the “zone out rate” might be alarming for bosses who support hybrid work arrangements and the many online meetings that accompany them, what your co-workers get up to behind the scenes as they endeavour to “multitask” during digital forums is perhaps even more disturbing.

The most popular activity to kill time during online meetings was texting others with 86 per cent of those surveyed confessing to that wrongdoing.

Other popular activities include undertaking other work tasks (75 per cent), online shopping (56 per cent), making a snack or meal (48 per cent), and going to the bathroom (48 per cent).

Less popular pursuits included playing online games, taking phone calls, watching online videos, doing work for a second employer, completing housework, and exercising.

The  decline of virtual engagement

There are possibly several reasons for our growing lack of engagement when it comes to online meetings.

Many erroneously believe that multi-tasking boosts productivity. Yet research demonstrates that a very small percentage of people are able to multitask without their performance levels dropping.

And while it’s generally considered socially unacceptable to multitask during a face-to-face meeting, with virtual meetings no one is able to prove beyond reasonable doubt that you are watching a movie, writing emails or doing your banking – unless you accidentally share your screen with others.

The point is, a lack of social shame during virtual meetings, means it’s much easier to zone out.

It’s also possible that our lack of engagement with virtual forums is a case of familiarity breeding contempt.

Our overexposure to online meetings during the pandemic appears to have led some of us to treat these gatherings as less important than the boardroom variety.

There’s also an alternative explanation.

The proliferation of meetings in our workplaces and the time those forums chew up has meant that many feel that if they do not attend to other tasks during online meetings, they’ll never get all their work done.

Powered by a pandemic, virtual meetings have had a good ride.

But rising levels of disengagement show they are on the decline - at least when it comes to their effectiveness.

While they are unlikely to disappear any time soon, having fewer, shorter, well-run online meetings might be the key to restoring an adequate level of focus and engagement.