A large-scale study of Microsoft employees in the US suggests that multitasking during video meetings has become common practice amongst employees trying to balance multiple workloads while working from home. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the longer and larger the meeting is, the more likely that attendees’ attention will drift off to other tasks.

Microsoft’s study combined large-scale telemetry data on remote meetings held on Microsoft Teams with email usage (Outlook) and edits on files stored in OneDrive and SharePoint in 2020, alongside a 715-person diary study. It found that in about 30% of all video meetings, employees interacted with their emails, while in around 25% of meetings they worked on files, such as Word documents.

Longer meetings and those held early in the day were more likely to see participants’ attention drift. Microsoft found that workers were twice as likely to multitask in meetings with more than 10 participants, and six times more likely to multitask in meetings that lasted more than 80 minutes, compared with those that took 20 minutes or less. Meetings held in the morning also involved more multitasking compared to those held in the afternoon, researchers said.

Scheduled and recurring meetings are also more likely to involve more multitasking, Microsoft found. “Ad hoc meetings generally involve a specific focus relevant to the specific attendees, while scheduled meetings, especially recurring meetings, are more likely to involve broader information sharing which does apply equally to each attendee,” the researchers said.

There are both good and bad implications of employees’ tendencies to multitask during meetings, according to Microsoft. On the plus side, employees reported they were able to get additional work done, with 39% of respondents saying they multitasked to catch up on work. Some Microsoft employees said that this had become necessary because of the increase in the number of meetings there were now expected to sit in on. As such, multitasking may enable employees to boost their productivity – particularly if they are working on files or taking notes that relate to the meeting.

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On the other hand, employees are also getting distracted by non-work-related tasks, like checking social media, playing smartphone games or – as reported by one respondent – looking at pictures of cats. Employees were more likely to multitask when they were called to meetings that didn’t apply directly to their work. “Sometimes people lose their concentration due to high cognitive load under such meetings of low relevance,” researchers said. Remote work also involves more distractions from the home-working environment that could lead people to multitasking, such as childcare.

In some cases, distraction seems to be baked into the meeting itself. The majority of video meeting apps like Teams and Zoom have parallel chat functionality that allows participants to post messages, images and files to the room during a meeting. While this has its uses, it’s also a source of distraction, particularly in large meetings.

Microsoft carried out a separate piece of research on this topic, concluding: “Parallel chat can enable more attendees to have a say while avoiding interrupting speakers, as well as a place for detail, affirmations, and even humor. However, it can also be distracting from the main purpose of the meeting and difficult to follow.”

Multitasking for anxiety relief

The nature of remote working itself during a pandemic is also having an impact on employees’ attention spans. Microsoft found that some respondents multitasked as a coping mechanism for anxiety, which also affected their ability to concentrate on meetings.

While some respondents (15%) said multitasking during video meetings made them more productive, the research also highlighted the pitfalls of wandering attention. Not only does multitasking lead to a loss of attention and engagement – reported by 36% of Microsoft US employees – but it’s also considered rude and can lead to mental fatigue.

The challenge for employers, then, is to make video meetings more relevant and engaging. On top of avoiding holding important meetings before lunch, employers should try to cut down on the number of unnecessary meetings, make meetings shorter or, where long meetings are necessary, include breaks. Given that employees are more likely to be distracted if they don’t have anything to contribute, organizers should think about ways to encourage attendees to engage with the meeting, or even help people decide whether they even need to attend.

Some of Microsoft’s suggestions are less likely to sit well with remote workers. For example, researchers float the idea of software that could block notifications during important meetings, but also had the capability “to track their behavior in other applications or even their other devices” and alert them when they interact with another app outside of the meeting. Given current concerns around employee surveillance tools, this doesn’t sound like something remote workers will be clamouring for.

Microsoft also suggested organizations “allow space for positive multitasking” by assigning meetings as camera-on or camera-off, with the idea being that “organizers can… implement a convention where video-on implies full attention, and video-off signals multitasking.” Microsoft’s research found that turning off the video camera or muting the microphone was closely related to multitasking behavior. Yet forcing attendees to switch on their cameras is unlikely to increase feelings of engagement when so many remote workers are already reporting video meeting fatigue (here’s how to combat that, by the way).

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Despite Microsoft carrying out what it believes could be “the most comprehensive study of remote meeting multitasking behavior” to date, some caveats exist. For starters, the study was only able to capture data on how frequently employees interacted with Outlook and OneDrive/SharePoint – meaning it doesn’t offer any insight on how often we’re being distracted by the likes of WhatsApp, Facebook, or the things happening in our home-working environments. Taking these into account, the prevalence of multitasking during meetings could be a lot higher than the research suggests.

Moreover, the data gathered didn’t provide information on whether multitasking was related to the meeting or not. “It is likely that some of the positive multitasking observations may be false positives,” the researchers noted.

Even so, at the crux of the findings lies a familiar theme. Video meetings may have become a necessary part of working during a pandemic, but keeping remote workers motivated and engaged involves more than gathering everyone together for a Zoom call several times a week – which may actually be doing more harm than good. If we’re hoping to make a long-term success of working from home, we need to think of new and creative ways of encouraging employees to keep their cameras on.