Team Meetings In A Time Of Distraction

How often are you in (or leading) a meeting but finding it hard to concentrate because of something happening in the wider world? How often have you noticed someone else in the meeting suddenly disappear – mentally, if not physically. “Breaking news” pop-ups have become commonplace as the business of news seeks our attention, and focus is harder to come by in virtual meetings where we are all sitting in front of screens that are fully capable of multi-tasking, moreso than any of us are.

Many of these distractions seem unpredictable – “Breaking: Something dramatic happening now!” – but realistically, only the content is unpredictable. We know to expect pop-ups and notifications multiple times throughout each day – that much is entirely predictable. If you don’t have team agreements, even these small notifications can be disruptive during meetings. Not only can it interfere with productivity, it can also affect team relationships, diminish the level of trust, and make the team less safe for each member of the team to authentically be themselves.

Sometimes these moments of unified attention are scheduled, and you can plan around them – such as this week’s Presidential inauguration in the US. Other times a disruption that you may not have planned around is so loud as to disrupt everything – such as the attack on the Capitol. But knowing that unscheduled disruptions are a fact of life, you can still have plans in place for how to lead your team when they occur.

This Week’s Tips:

Plan for distractions and disruptions. Take some time to think about the kinds of disruptions and distractions that come up for your team, and think about how you can proactively address them to build your team as a space that honors people’s full lives. These disruptions tend to fall into three categories that you can use when planning:

  1. During scheduled times of shared cultural distraction. Even if you personally are not interested in following the event live, understand that others will be distracted during this time. Avoid meetings that overlap with these if at all possible, and schedule around them. 
  2. During unexpected times of shared cultural distraction. In a time of unexpected upheaval, there is no perfect one-size-fits-all solution. Recommendations include rescheduling meetings for a few days later where that’s a possibility. Ask your team what they need – it may be helpful to keep space for a team meeting with no work agenda for team members to share and process. Some organizations have offered that employees can leave a “vacation auto-reply” in times where their focus needs to be elsewhere. These responses may need to be addressed on a case-by-case basis, but it is worth spending time planning your range of options before situations arise that need immediate responses.
  3. On an ongoing basis. Try beginning each meeting with a check-in (such as “On a scale of 1-10, how present are you at the moment?” If you do not have purposeful team agreements on what to expect during team meetings, work with your team to come up with a brief set of agreements that work for team functionality. These might include putting your smartphone in do-not-disturb mode during meetings (or putting it away), agreeing not to have news websites or social media open during meetings, etc. Each team is unique, and what works for your team may be unique too – work together to define what works best for your situation.

Of course, every organization and every team is different. What works for one may not work for another. The key is to find what works for you. Take some time this week to plan for disruptions and distractions in your team, and create your range of response options. And let us know how it goes in our Facebook group so others can learn from you!

Published by Ian Jackson

Ian Jackson is the founder of Building Bridges Leadership, which works with individuals, teams, and organizations to create authentic community in the workplace. He also writes children's fiction and teaches creative writing.

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