Ideas & Debate

Steps to boost your productivity during virtual get-togethers


As the global health pandemic brought on by the swift spread of the Covid-19 virus and its numerous variants drudges on into its nineteenth month since the Ministry of Health confirmed its arrival into our nation, thousands of Kenyans continue to labour in some pure or hybrid form of contagion-necessitated virtual work.

Platforms such as Microsoft Teams, Skype, Google Hangouts, WhatsApp group video calls, all enabled millions of workers, around the world and right here in East Africa, who were fortunate to hold certain types of jobs to work safely from home.

But the most pervasive software that surged to prominence since coronavirus became a common word in all our lexicons is most certainly Zoom.

While all the virtual platforms enabled some semblance of interaction by allowing synchronistic interaction between colleagues that reduced feelings of isolation, working from home separated from other people is not natural in the long history of human evolution.

The human brain evolved as an interpersonal social genius about reading others, feeling comfort or fright in others, and perceiving social bonds that build our resiliency.

Therefore, it is no wonder that employees behave differently in virtual meetings than they do in physical in person meetings.

A new study by Hancheng Cao and a large team of co-researchers tracked 715 Microsoft employees all over the world for four months. They found that workers multitask in over 30 percent of virtual meetings.

Multitasking leads to a steep drop in attention and engagement all with an increase in mental fatigue and feelings of disrespect from colleagues who give divided attention.

What led to employees to multitask more often? The larger the meeting, then the less unique and important to the convening’s outcome did workers feel and were therefore more likely to multitask.

Both longer meetings as well as morning meetings yielded much higher rates of juggling multiple duties simultaneously.

Regularly scheduled meetings had higher multitasking occurrences than impromptu spur-of-the-moment meetings.

Interestingly, less multitasking occurs on Fridays as compared to other Monday through Thursday workdays since employees know they have the weekend to catchup on other tasks and feel less need to simultaneously do them in Friday meetings.

Unsurprisingly, employees balance many responsibilities more often in meetings that they feel are less important or consequential.

Remarkably, the study coincides with a sharp 16.7 percent crash and continued plateau this month in Zoom Video Communications Inc’s stock equity price on America’s NASDAQ exchange.

The drop wiped out over 1.64 trillion Kenyan Shillings in market value. Zoom told investors that their sales growth is softening since higher proportions of employees are heading back into physical office spaces and students physically returning to schools.

Therefore, individual account number growth is dropping.

As employees and students revert back to pre-pandemic behaviours with physical or mixed hybrid physical-virtual attendance, uptake of cyber conferencing solutions drops.

New and prospective users do not feel that they need the virtual solutions in their arsenal of work tools.

The future of cyber conferencing will surely be in trying to further reduce behaviour and outcome differences of platform users between in person and online meetings.

But as a manager, you can help bring some convergence between the two that will help boost productivity in and from virtual work get-togethers.

First, move your online meetings to the afternoon. Humans are their most creative in mornings and the most creative method for people involves alone solitary work time.

So, allow staff to utilise their mornings on more complex individual tasks, strategies, product development, or planning.

Second, keep meetings short. If employees psychologically know that a meeting will be brief, then they will be more likely to focus on it since they know they will still have time for other duties afterwards.

Third, include breaks in meetings. Such breaks will build in structured times where it is acceptable to make other calls, respond to emails, or write down ideas.

Fourth, reduce the quantity of unnecessary meetings that merely serve as bastions of bureaucratic culture.