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Focus during meetings

The electronic world in which we now work is full of gadgets and electronic assistants that constantly vie for our attention.  Sadly, these very devices that were created to help us work and communicate more efficiently can sometimes work against us and affect both the quality of our communication and our work.  Agile methodologies place a lot of emphasis on communication and team interactions.  Consequently, distracted team members can cause problems for both the team and the project.

For many, it started with the Blackberry in the early 2000’s when almost overnight it seemed to become acceptable to check and respond to emails in meetings.  The person presenting in the meeting was increasingly greeted with a sea of the tops of people’s heads, as they had their gaze, and concentration locked on their new phones.  This “multi-tasking” allowed meeting attendees to work their way through their urgent, and not so urgent emails, even when locked in meetings.  Consequently, they gave less attention to the meeting than many, including the presenter, would have liked.

Since then the problem has only become worse.  The latest iPhone or Android device is no longer the sole preserve of senior management.  Even those employees without a business mobile phone can often be found clutching their personal mobile phone.  Also meeting attendees frequently take notes in OneNote or Evernote and therefore spend much of the meeting typing away on their laptops.  Or at least, we assume they are taking notes.  Similarly, it’s no longer just work email that meeting attendees are distracted by, Facebook, Twitter, personal email, online shopping and even games are within easy reach and provide new distractions in meetings.

Such immersion in technological gadgets during meetings brings with it many issues and is just one element of what Edward Hallowell, MD describes as Attention Deficit Trait (ADT).  For Agile projects that value “Individuals and interactions over processes and tools” such a hindrance to communication can undermine the ability of the team to deliver the project successfully.

So what can you do about the team member that spends their time on daily stand-ups, retrospectives or review meetings catching up with their friends on Facebook or dealing with the next crisis in their work email?   The obvious answer is to have a word with them in person if the issue is not just isolated to a single individual then raise the matter at the retrospective and ask the team to come up with solutions.  Maybe changing the time or duration of the meeting would help.

Setting ground rules for meetings can help, this is an approach commonly used in teaching as it involves the participants in the decisions rather than forcing them upon the group.  That said, it is worth starting with a clear idea of where you hope to end up.  Five minutes spent agreeing on ground rules with the team can help focus everyone’s attention and result in a more efficient, productive and focused meeting.

For remote teams, the problem becomes even harder to deal with. As it is not as easy to tell whether the remote participants are listening/watching the call or web conference, or whether they are engaged in another activity at their desk, or worse still not even present at their desk anymore, having decided to get a cup of coffee midway through the meeting.  Webcams can help to address some of these issues by making the team member conscious that someone is watching, as they would be if co-located with other colleagues.  As a result, the use of webcams can lead to positive behaviour change within the team.

Not only do webcams help focus people’s attention more on the meeting taking place, as they are visible to all team members, but it also contributes to building rapport within the team.  Each team member becomes a person and not just a voice on the other end of a phone line.  There may be some reluctance and resistance to using webcams initially.  However, some gentle reminding to turn on the webcams and having some fun with it can help, starting off discussing the Christmas jumpers that some team members are wearing can be a good icebreaker to using webcams, the team in India were very amused by the outfits the UK team were wearing one day.  This discussion is limited to a short period each year, but have a think about other options that exist for you and your team.

The webcam should help build interaction and involvement between the team and not become a big brother tool to ensure they are paying attention.  Achieving these positive benefits from webcam use will lead to improvements in the team dynamics and working relationships and will make sure that there is no need to use the webcam as a monitoring tool.