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How (and How Not) to Multitask in Meetings

Multitasking during meetings can be effective, but only in certain situations.

Key points

  • Work communication has evolved significantly, favouring a combination of meetings, email, instant messaging tools and online discussion forums.
  • There is still mixed opinion about whether multitasking during meetings is good business practice, yet many consider it effective.
  • Multitasking can drive productivity, but negatively impact mental health.
monkeybusinessimages/Getty Images
Source: monkeybusinessimages/Getty Images

When I started my career, I distinctly remember working at my desk and wistfully looking at managers who were in meetings for most of the day. Spending the day in meetings seemed like the perfect gig—you get to just sit and talk in a room together all day, rather than be stuck in front of a computer screen.

Well, be careful what you wish for. Like many people at work today, I often look at the number of meetings in my calendar and think, “When am I actually going to do my work?”

Meetings are one of the most common communication tools in organisations. Whether 1:1 interactions, large group sessions, formal or informal, they are incredibly prevalent in our working lives. And of course, the pandemic completely changed the nature of meetings—they no longer mean sitting in a room together talking but are virtual (meaning I still haven’t escaped my screen).

Combined with that, how we otherwise communicate has changed. In addition to meetings and the usual emails, companies commonly use an instant messaging tool (e.g. Slack, Teams, Chat), or online discussion boards. Then, there are communications within communications, such as chat windows within virtual meetings (e.g. Zoom).

In addition, the work that we are communicating about is no longer linear. It’s not a case of "do this task and then move onto that task." Rather, there are multiple tasks that need to be completed simultaneously, according to which one has the highest priority! There is no more “finish” at the end of the day; just working through the continuous stream of work.

It’s not surprising then, given the above, that multitasking in meetings has become a new norm. Multitasking in meetings takes many forms: finishing off another work task, opening up a side-channel with someone about the meeting topic, or taking advantage of the time to work through emails and messages.

Almost all of us are guilty of multitasking at some point, but there is still mixed opinion about whether it is a good business practice or even objectively effective. Despite myriad articles published about the fallacy of multitasking, many still consider it effective for certain kinds of tasks or necessary to meet work demands.

Diving into the research to uncover how and where multitasking can be useful, here are four considerations to keep in mind for successful multitasking.

  • Multitasking takes up more brainpower than you might realise, so it’s more tiring! By doing two or more tasks at once, you are using more brainpower than just doing one at a time. This is fine for short bursts but isn’t sustainable full time—assuming you want to continue doing tasks well. So, you may want to designate particular meetings for multitasking rather than have it as a general practice.
  • Multitasking may not be negative for productivity, but it is negative for mental health. There is certainly evidence to show that multitasking can be more efficient, particularly when you look at the productivity of a group of multitaskers. However, the constant stimulation and context switching of multitasking has a marked detrimental impact at an individual level and increases stress.
  • Not everyone is good at multitasking. Multitasking is actually a skill, and there’s evidence to show that like other skills, some people may be inherently better at it than others. Importantly, the ability to multitask may not align with a preference to multitask!
  • Meetings are also about building trusted relationships. This is a big one. To multitask during meetings may help productivity, however, that productivity may be at the detriment of building relationships with others in the meeting. Some people find multitasking rude (more likely if they personally don’t multitask) and counterproductive to the meeting’s purpose. Social norms are important here, reading the (virtual) meeting room and looking to see whether multitasking is an accepted practice. There’s also evidence to show that multitasking in a 1:1 meeting is a no-go.

There are circumstances when multitasking has more of a negative impact:

  • In a face-to-face meeting (vs virtual)
  • In a meeting with a direct report (having a manager multitask in a meeting erodes trust from direct reports and might skew the information shared from a distracted manager)
  • If the multitasking is not related to the meeting at all

Whether it’s your preference or not, multitasking is here to stay. So, whether you find multitasking in meetings useful from time to time or it’s a daily business practice, I hope this helps you multitask mindfully, understanding the impact it can have on your workplace relationships.


Appelbaum, S. H., Marchionni, A., & Fernandez, A. (2008). The multi-tasking paradox: Perceptions, problems and strategies. Management Decision, 46(9), 1313–1325.

Reinsch, N. L., Turner, J. W., Tinsley, C. H., Reinsch, N. L. M. A. R., & Turner, W. (2014). a Practice Whose Multicommunicating : Time Has Come ?, 33(2), 391–403.

Cameron, A. F., & Webster, J. (2011). Relational outcomes of multicommunicating: Integrating incivility and social exchange perspectives. Organization Science, 22(3), 754–771.

Korabik, K., Rhijn, T. van, Ayman, R., Lero, D. S., & Hammer, L. B. (2017). Gender, polychronicity, and the work–family interface: is a preference for multitasking beneficial? Community, Work and Family, 20(3), 307–326.

Mesmer-magnus, J., Bruk-lee, V., & Sanderson, K. (2014). Personality Correlates of Preference for Multitasking in the Workplace Florida International University Assess Systems, 14(1), 67–77

De Bruin, R., & Barber, L. K. (2019). Social judgments of electronic multitasking in the workplace: The role of contextual and individual factors. Computers in Human Behavior, 94(March 2018), 110–121.

Cameron, A. F., Barki, H., Ortiz de Guinea, A., Coulon, T., & Moshki, H. (2018). Multicommunicating in Meetings: Effects of Locus, Topic Relatedness, and Meeting Medium. Management Communication Quarterly, 32(3), 303–336.

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