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If You Multitask During Meetings, Your Team Will, Too


Jan. 25, 2018 Harvard Business Review

Managers have hard jobs. They coordinate the work of their teams, align this work with company goals, serve as a primary source of professional development for their employees, deliver results, and many other critical tasks (all while keeping people engaged). We’ve previously written about what great managers do differently, but even great managers are not fully aware of how their work habits can impact those they supervise. Our latest research allows us to begin quantifying how these habits can cause significant — and often undesirable — ripple effects.

The transition from individual contributor to manager expands the influence of a person’s work habits. The more senior they become, the more this influence is amplified. Unfortunately, managers typically have very limited visibility into what their own behaviors may be signaling to their team and how the team might be reacting. Microsoft Workplace Analytics allows us to analyze the digital signals from anonymized and aggregated data from meetings, email, HR, and other data sources to better understand these impacts. We’ve used this technology to study the behaviors of tens of thousands of managers in several large companies and found some consistent patterns.

This article outlines two common signals that manager work habits unintentionally send to their teams, their impact, and recommendations for lessening unintended consequences.

Working After Hours

This sends the signal, “When I’m on, you need to be too.” We’ve found a significant and consistent correlation between the amount of time managers send email and organize meetings after-hours (think late nights, weekends, etc.) and the amount of time their direct reports do the same.

In one Fortune 100 technology company, for example, we found that every hour that people managers spend after-hours translates to 20 minutes of additional direct report time spent after-hours. The numbers vary, but we’ve found significant correlations hold true for several other companies as well.

Analyzing Sunday night email patterns highlights one way this plays out. It’s not uncommon for people to get a head start on their week by catching up on Sunday evenings, and typically, people do this with no intention that email recipients will read or respond right away. Unfortunately, that’s often not what happens. Our analysis suggests that when managers start their work week on Sunday night, so do their direct reports.

Intentionally or not, managers that frequently work late nights are signaling an expectation of similar behavior to their teams, and their teams are responding in kind. This may not be a good thing. According to the General Social Survey, 48% of employees say that work sometimes or often interferes with family life; this habit is likely a strong contributing factor. The negative impacts are further illustrated by recent Gallup research concluding that “U.S. workers who email for work and who spend more hours working remotely outside of normal working hours are more likely to experience a substantial amount of stress on any given day than workers who do not exhibit these behaviors.”

What you should do:

  1. Talk to your team about expectations. Make it clear that just because you choose to work nights or weekends, you do not expect that of others. Be mindful of sending mixed signals such as encouraging people to go dark, then expecting immediate responses after hours. Authenticity and consistency are essential.
  2. When you’re processing emails at night, schedule them to go out in the morning or simply save them in a draft folder until the next day.
  3. Minimize the number of people on your distribution list. This is a good habit any time, but particularly after hours. As the scenario below demonstrates, the small step of reducing the number of people on an email chain has a dramatic impact on your organization.

Multitasking in Meetings

This sends the signal, “It’s OK to not pay attention.” Managers that frequently send emails during meetings are, according to our analysis, are 2.2 times more likely to have direct reports who also multi-task in meetings.

The ready explanation is that multi-tasking is a necessary survival strategy in days filled with back-to-back meetings. Yet the data does not bear this out: multi-tasking seems to be a choice or habit, not an inevitability. In the chart below, each dot represents a manager. The X axis in the number of hours they spend in meetings each week and the Y axis is the percentage of time they multi-task. This analysis shows a wide variance in the multi-tasking rates from 0% to over 70% that appear unrelated to the number of hours in meetings. Managers with 10-15 hours of meetings are just about as likely to multi-task as those with over 30 hours of meetings.

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