Increasing numbers of organizations are turning to virtual teams to accomplish vital work in a challenging economy, with a workforce that is globally dispersed. These virtual groups are experimenting with ways to hold effective meetings across geographic distances. When the technologies used are the common "teleconference plus computer connection," employees often engage in multitasking. We conducted a field study in an organization with long-term experience in virtual collaboration, finding that multitasking could enhance employee productivity when properly managed, but that it also had potential downsides. In this article, we identify factors that influence the amount of multitasking that occurs during virtual meetings, and offer guidelines for appropriate usage.
The Merits of Multitasking
Jim sits at his desk facilitating a meeting of the virtual team he coordinates (to protect anonymity, all names have been changed). In the physical space of his office he is alone, but in the virtual space of the meeting, he is connected to 25 team members by telephone and computer links. Jim appears to be intently reading and composing email messages, on one of the two computers in front of him. But he is also paying close attention to the meeting, in which a speaker is going through a PowerPoint presentation broadcast via NetMeeting. "Next slide, please," says the speaker. Jim seamlessly moves from his email over to the other computer and clicks on the next PowerPoint slide. As facilitator, he controls the PowerPoint display seen by all team members hooked up via NetMeeting.
The other team members cannot see Jim. What they know about his meeting participation is this: He is responsive to requests from each speaker. He regularly asks questions that indicate that he is listening to what speakers say. He manages the meeting process by starting and ending the meeting and helping the group keep to the agenda and timetable.
This is a typical example of the multitasking we observed in a pilot study of virtual meetings. We collected data using the anthropological approach of observing, videotaping, and interviewing team members as they went about their regular meeting activities. This is the first examination of virtual meetings to use the technique of directly observing real work situations: previous studies have relied on indirect forms of data collection such as interviews and surveys. The strength of an anthropological approach is that it gets at the "native point of view," the perspectives, priorities, and everyday behaviors of employees doing their best to carry out their responsibilities.
Multitasking turned out to be an aspect of virtual meetings that was highly salient to the employees we observed and interviewed. Interestingly, this phenomenon has not been addressed in detail by previous studies of virtual groups (Klein & Kleinhanns, 2003; Overholt, 2002; Santosus, 2003; Waller, 1997). In this article, we map out the dimensions of multitasking as revealed in our research, and describe ways that multitasking can enhance employee productivity. In general, we regard multitasking in a positive light. Employees who multitask are usually putting in an extra level of...
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