Attention spamming

I don’t know if you’ve ever been here, but I sure have, and something inside me tells me you likely have too if you have ever participated in endless online video meetings. Whether it is via Zoom, or Teams, I feel my attention dropping in meetings because of technology. And that is a problem.

Let’s take the example of Microsoft Office 365 Teams. It happens to be our corporate system for messaging, chatting and calls, whether video or voice. It is a combination of Skype and Slack and it allows me to do many things at the same time. And why wouldn’t I … but I should not.

The problem here is that my autistic 50-year old brain lights up when I can do many things at the same time. It makes me feel efficient when I can fire off a chat request about a point we discussed in a meeting to one of my team members, proudly announcing to the other participants in the meeting “They’re on it” … chasing a compliment or an admiring nod.

This used to be more, or is it less of a problem in earlier days. With the exception of the apps of the Microsoft suite, one app represented one functionality. If I wanted to call, I used my phone. If I wanted to video conference, I skyped. That even became a verb. And if I wanted to present something, I used Powerpoint and sent the slides beforehand. Now I can use Powerpoint within Teams during a presentation while chatting with my collaborators about something different.

My conclusion, we are in dire need of focus and attention, and an active commitment to be all there, to be present in the moment. We need to respect ourselves by not succumbing to multi-tasking, and we need to respect the other participants we are with in the video call. That is not the case right now. People are staring right through you on the screen. It is amazing what you can see in lack of attention when you are looking at the faces projected below a presentation. And that is not the worst: more than once I’ve sat through a presentation interrupted by no doubt important calls. And then you see the video of someone having a different conversation with someone else, on mute. Or worse … not on mute.

Now, I can whine about it, but there is a solution. The solution is a choice we will need to make. And the choice is conceptually simple, but not that easy in practice. We need to decide to be present in our meetings. What does that mean?

It means that we commit to single tasking, not doing anything else but be in the meeting. I can accept that you take notes on the same computer you are using to participate in the meeting, but ideally, have a dedicated note taker that shares his or her notes.

It also means that you silence notifications, both on your computer and on your phone. Better yet, switch it off. None of us is likely a trauma surgeon, and I don’t think trauma surgeons carry their phones with them into the operating theatre.

And finally, let’s decide to participate in less meetings. The way to do that is to question why your presence is essential in the meeting. If it is a way for the organiser to cover him- or herself, don’t participate, and be clear about why. If you have no direct added value in the meeting, being it as someone deciding or contributing fundamental elements, do not participate.

The tools we have are powerful indeed, and they allow us to do more than ever before. But should we?