Look Alive: How to Focus During Virtual Meetings

For many of us, it seems like the workday has morphed into a steady stream of virtual meetings. After hours of staring at the computer screen, it’s natural to start to zone out. Here are some tips to help you to stay focused and alert until screen time is over.

Have a not-so-hidden agenda

A sure-fire way to flop is to have no clearly defined agenda or purpose for a meeting, whether it’s virtual or in-person. If attendees are going to give you their precious time, it’s important to have a plan.

Before the appointed hour, send attendees an agenda with the purpose of the meeting, what you’ll cover and any action items they’ll need to prepare in advance. Assign each agenda item a time allowance—and stick to it. Attendees will appreciate knowing what to expect, and they’ll be able to plan how they will participate to the conversation.

“Having an agenda shows your colleagues you’re professional and that you respect their time,” explains UMGC Assistant Vice President of Career Programming Francine Blume. “It also makes your meetings more productive.”

And whatever you do, be sure to end on time. There’s a good chance your co-worker is going to hop off your virtual meeting and head straight into the next one.

Encourage chatter

While virtual meetings enable teams to gather when they can’t meet face-to-face, there are some downsides. One biggie? Attendees accidentally talking over each other because they can’t read the body language in the room. This can result in a meeting being less lively than it would have been in person.

“Often people don’t chime in during a virtual meeting because they’re afraid of interrupting someone else,” notes Blume.

There are some things you can do to mitigate this risk. Many virtual meeting platforms have features that let participants ask questions, raise their hands or type messages to the group. If you’re running the meeting, encourage attendees to use these tools, and then monitor them so you can call on individuals to speak one at a time.

If you’re an attendee, listen carefully and take notes. Then, when the opportunity presents itself, acknowledge what your colleagues said and chime in with your own insights, questions and ideas.

Practice mindfulness

While working from home offers many benefits, it also presents a host of potential distractions. You may be sharing a space with others who are working or attending school remotely, as well. Factor in barking dogs, ringing doorbells and lawnmowers outside your window, and it’s easy to see how your attention can be diverted.

“With so many things competing for our attention at a given moment, it’s important to make a conscious effort to stay focused on your work,” says Blume.

First, join by video, if possible. When your colleagues can see you, you’re less likely to start checking your email or folding your laundry. Also, turn off any distractions you control, such as notifications on your phone or computer. If it’s an option, sit in a room with a door you can close, too.

With external distractions taken care of, it’s time to focus on the internal ones. A few minutes before the meeting begins, take some time to mentally prepare to engage and focus. Clear your mind, and set aside anything else that has your attention for later. Then, review the meeting agenda and jot down any notes you need that might be useful. Take a few deep breaths and think about what you hope to accomplish during the meeting.

“By keeping your eye on your goal, you’re more likely to stay engaged,” adds Blume.  

Keep things human

When you’re talking to a machine all day, it can be easy to forget there are people on the other side who are just as screen-weary as you are. At the start of a meeting, take the time to address your colleagues by name and ask how they’re doing. A little humanity goes a long way in staying connected to your team and boosting your productivity.

When you make a concerted effort to stay alert and engaged in the virtual work world, you’ll find that your remote meetings can be just as successful, effective and focused as their in-person counterparts.

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