Combat “Absent Presence” Syndrome In your Remote Meetings
By Nancy Settle-Murphy

Posted March 07, 2011

Nearly all of our meetings are virtual these days. We know that most people on our calls are sending emails or instant messages during the calls. As a result, our meetings take longer and usually produce pretty poor outcomes. Is there any way to avoid this costly habit?”

This senior manager is describing the much-maligned “chronic inattention,” “absent presence” or “surfer’s voice” characterized by half-hearted responses or a refrain of “Can you repeat that last point?” So how can you manage meeting participants who multitask during phone or web meetings? (And let’s be honest here—all of us succumb to the temptation to multitask from time to time.) Here are 12 tips to keep your remote participants engaged and on task.

  1. Make sure the meeting is relevant for all. Maybe a few need only join at critical junctures, so they can focus on their other work. Maybe some can catch up on decisions later. The smaller the group, the more like people are to join in the conversation, and the less likely they are to wander off to tend to other things.
  2. Take advantage of pre-work. Think about having people read documents in advance, rather than suffering through a narrated slide set, so that the meeting time is used for discussion, debate and decision-making, instead of passive listening.
  3. State ground rules about participation plainly at least twice—in advance, and right before the meeting.In your meeting preparation document, try writing something like: “The decisions we need to reach are crucial, so it’s essential that you focus your full attention during this hour.” You might also get specific and ask that people refrain from handling email or instant messaging anyone for the duration of the meeting unless it’s critical.
  4. When you begin the call, reiterate the need for everyone’s full attention. Ask if anyone has a special situation that requires him/her to take time away from the meeting, and when that temporary departure needs to take place, so you can plan the discussion accordingly. By seeking verbal commitments from participants right up front, they’re less likely to slink away to do emails.
  5. Try reversing the usual “all on mute except speaking” ground rule. Ask everyone to stay off mute, so they can be ready to participate instantly. (This way, you’ll hear any errant key clicks that reveal multitasking is at hand, and you can be prepared to make some well-timed comments.)
  6. If you suspect someone of multitasking, call him/her on it. Especially if in so doing s/he is diminishing the value of the conversation at large, you may have to come right out and say so. How you do that depends on a variety of factors, such as how well you know the person, how formal or informal the meeting structure, the topic at hand, your authority to control behavior, etc. The more you ignore the offending behavior, the more others are likely to assume that your tacit permission makes it okay for everyone else to follow suit.
  7. Use technology to focus attention in situations where that makes sense. For example, a virtual classroom environment allows everyone to participate both via phone and within a web-based meeting area. The more dynamic and interactive the application, the less likely people are to toggle to an unrelated activity. If you must show slides during your call, use an application that allows you to control the content and activities from a central location.
  8. Keep the pace quick and conversations concise. Nothing can drive someone to another task faster than a boring conversation that meanders here and there, or a endless presentation that could just as easily been read offline.
  9. Stick to your agenda through a well-directed conversation. If you allow a conversation to stray too far off the course, you make it easier for others to give themselves a virtual “hall pass.”
  10. Come prepared to keep people on their toes. For example, have a ready list of questions for which you’ll be seeking responses. (Examples: Name the top three challenges our sales teams are facing today. What priority would you assign the following list of items?) If you can let them know what you’ll be asking in advance, all the better, since they’re more likely to come with thoughtful responses they’re eager to share.
  11. Vary the order and way in which you ask questions. Keep people guessing. For example, you might keep track of the order in which people joined the call, and assign each a number on a clock, starting 12:00. For one set of questions, start at 12:00 and go clockwise until you hear a response from everyone. Start at 3:00 the next time and go the other direction. Or ask for volunteers to go first, and ask for others to build on the initial ideas.
  12. Don’t be afraid to end an unproductive meeting. If you suspect that you have lost a critical mass of participants to other priorities, you may simply announce that you are ending the meeting, and you need to know when people can be prepared to spend focused time on completing the unfinished tasks. You may need to ask for a few smaller chunks of time, rather than try for a longer period of time which may be difficult to schedule.

With everyone paying full attention, most meetings can end far more quickly, with better results. Your job is to persuade participants that their contributions are valuable, and that you plan to take your job of running a productive meeting very seriously. The more you can show that you’re capable of leading the team to meet their objectives through remote meetings, the more likely they’ll be to find other meetings in which to multitask.

Posted by Nancy Settle-Murphy