Stop the Multitasking, Listen and Engage

Stop the Multitasking, Listen and Engage

I’m a huge advocate for distributed teaming and the flexibility and variety of benefits we can get from a work-from-anywhere culture. However, especially in agile circles, co-location is pushed hard.

Though I hear over and over again the challenges of things such as time zone differences or cultural differences as barriers for distributed teams, I rarely hear mention of what I think is one of the primary problems when working remotely: Multitasking!

When you’re on a conference call where you can’t be seen, you’re much more likely to put yourself on mute, and keep working on whatever you think is a higher priority, just barely listening for a mention of your name or something you think you might need to know.

In fact, even when there are conference calls across sites, and many people are in the room, I’ve been in many a meeting where someone puts the room on mute so that side conversations can happen, even while someone is presenting.

If we were physically in the same room with the speaker, out of respect, most people would at least pretend to be listening.

But when you can’t be seen or heard, it gives license to not pay close attention, and so we multitask, chat or play with our phones during the parts of the call where we think we can get away with it. (Perhaps holoportation will solve these types of problems in the future.)

Focused listening can be difficult, even if we’re co-located. These days we’re constantly interrupted with texts, phone calls, tweets or emails our devices deem important with a variety of notification beeps, quacks or ring tones.

People are distracted with their smartphones, even when they are talking one on one with someone in person, so much so that it’s almost become the new norm to multitask constantly, preventing us from gaining the beautiful benefits of connecting with a person instead of a computer.

Though I’m totally a fan of multitasking in certain situations (for example, I love to listen to podcasts while exercising), it’s a huge barrier for effective one-on-one communication.

I fully believe that distributed teams can be just as effective as co-located teams, but if you are working remotely, it’s more important than ever that you learn to practice strong communication and teamwork skills from a distance.

That means you need to stop the multitasking during conference calls and start listening and engaging.

I teach both face-to-face and virtual classes, and, of course, the face-to-face classes are easier for me because I’m able to see the body language of the students and do activities to keep them engaged.

However, during virtual classes, we play games throughout the class so that the students can participate via chat, being the first to answer a question or cheering on a teammate. The other day, one of the students used his webcam to show us his new adorable puppy! Now that’s something that doesn’t normally happen in a co-located class.

Many of the problems that keep us from communicating effectively, such as multitasking, are happening regardless of where we’re physically sitting.

We need to recognize our own poor habits and work to enhance our communication. This is especially important if we don’t have the benefit of communicating in person.

So, stop the multitasking and, whether you are face to face or remote, when you’re communicating with someone else, find a way to listen attentively and share your smile.


Yvette Francino has more than 30 years in the software development industry, and is an independent consultant, experienced agile leader, coach, author and trainer in various methodologies including SAFe, Scrum, Kanban and large-scale custom methodologies.

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