How often have you been tempted to multitask in a remote meeting? Survey results vary but the available data suggests a majority of us are engaged in other activities while we’re supposed to be paying attention to something else. For a lot of us, that means doing emails and surfing the internet while logged on to a call; but some people have taken things to extremes.

California-based plastic surgeon Dr. Scott Green recently made international headlines after his virtual court appearance to answer a traffic charge. Nothing out of the ordinary there, you’d have thought, except that Green joined the Zoom session – live-streamed from the Sacramento Superior Court – fully scrubbed-up and begowned, at his operating table.

Green explained that he was at that point at work on a patient, but had the support of a medical colleague, and was thus available for trial. Presiding commissioner Gary Link didn’t agree, and promptly ended the session, suggesting that they reconvene when Dr. Green wasn’t attending to someone under his care. The doctor is currently under an ethics investigation by California’s Medical Board.


“Everyone needs to be good at it these days”

‘Multitasking’ isn’t a very old concept. Intriguingly, in our increasingly tech-dominated world, the term first seems to have been coined in 1965 to describe computing processes rather than human activity. But a lot of our clients would argue, I suspect, that everyone needs to be good at it these days, given the sheer number of different demands on our time.

Neuroscientist Paul Burgess makes a distinction between concurrent multitasking (in which you attempt to perform two different tasks at exactly the same time, e.g. talking while driving) and serial multitasking (in which you switch quickly between one task and another). Burgess suggests that the latter is by far the most common, and perhaps that’s what Dr. Green thought would be acceptable to the court.

Recent research indicates that multitasking in the operating theatre – and the study was looking at different activities focussed on patient care, rather than external phone calls – can contribute to a disruption in the brain’s pre-frontal cortex, and lapses in concentration and performance. And, challenging some received wisdom, researchers at the University of Bergen found no evidence to support the claim that women are any better at multitasking than men.


Tips on managing multitasking

So, what should we do about it? A Harvard Business School (HBR) report from 2020 suggests that many of us have been spending more rather than less time in meetings since the beginning of the pandemic, and that’s a trend that’s unlikely to reverse any time soon. And with increased workloads and in many cases smaller teams available to tackle them, we seem to be facing a crisis in time management and prioritisation. It’s clear that we need to balance meetings with getting other work done in a more efficient way, so here are four suggestions that might help, drawn from our courses.

  1. Know your priorities. What’s the most important thing you should be doing right now? If it’s being in a meeting, and giving the matter under discussion your full attention, then try to do that. If you need to do something else, and it’s really urgent, then do that instead and see if someone can attend the meeting in your place.
  2. Eliminate distractions. Turn off your email notifications, and put your phone to one side, so that you’re not distracted by incoming texts, emails, social media or other messages. If you’re less tempted to multitask, you’ll be better able to focus on what you’re supposed to be doing.
  3. Be respectful. You could argue that Dr. Green showed questionable levels of respect to the Sacramento Court or his patient. We all expect other people to pay us the right amount of attention, so that’s worth remembering the next time you’re tempted to fire off an instant message during an internal meeting. A study published in the HBR indicates that lots of managers multitask in meetings out of habit rather than because they have to: think of how their team members might feel as a result (and what kind of an example they’re being set).
  4. Have shorter meetings. Lots of encounters – face-to-face and virtual – go on too long. Everyone will be grateful if your discussion doesn’t last the full scheduled hour. Finishing early, or better still, organising 30-minute rather than three-hour meetings, should win you friends. And if you must have a longer meeting, then make sure you take plenty of breaks, so that people can stretch, refocus and – yes, if they really have to – attend to other tasks.
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