Shopping, Gaming While the Boss Talks

How multitasking during meetings can land you in deep trouble.

June 11, 2009 — -- I know what you're thinking: People who spend meetings mesmerized by their laptop or smartphone are the scourge of the workforce.

They're the reason so many aimless assemblages take twice as long as they should. In fact, if there's anyone to blame for the millions of unproductive meetings that breed equally unproductive follow-up meetings each year, it's them.

But as long as there are meandering meetings that don't pertain to a majority of their attendees -- and as long as these meetings continue to gobble up a significant chunk of the workweek -- there will be meeting multitaskers. I should know. Having e-mailed, instant messaged, blogged, shopped, and even dozed through my fair share of counterproductive confabs over the years, I'm one of them.

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Herewith, the top ways meeting attendees get caught with their digital pants down, so to speak -- and workarounds for each.

The Careless Idler

A software engineer I'll call Jordan shared this lamentable tale of how killing time during an all-day training seminar cost him a job he'd been at four months.

"After lunch the presenter was supposed to show us a product demo, but he couldn't get the thing installed," Jordan said.

While some of the meeting attendees tried to help the presenter load the software and others stared off into space, Jordan began playing a game on his laptop, something his previous employer had allowed workers to do, even during meetings. Only now, a peer who happened to glance at Jordan's computer called him on it -- and later told the boss.

"I went home and thought, 'With my laptop in hand, I probably could have been doing work,'" Jordan said.

Unfortunately, the boss had the same idea and told Jordan to pack up his desk the next day.

"It's better to be caught really working, so any double-timing needs to be about company business," said Nance Rosen, a Los Angeles business communication coach. "Never open a file you wouldn't want seen on a screen or by a speaker who might pace around the room and look over your shoulder."

That includes text messages, instant messages, e-mail, Facebook and Twitter. (Sorry, social media junkies.)

The BlackBerry-Ban Breaker

"I make my chief executive members turn off their cell phones, crackberries, etcetera during the meeting unless they are expecting the birth of a child that day," said Linda Swindling from Carrollton, Texas, a motivational speaker who runs a number of chief executive peer groups.

"They try to look, but you can always tell," Swindling said. "They put it just below the table and glance down at it. Looks like a teenager trying to cheat on the test."

"If there's a 'no cell phone' rule in the meeting and you know that something might come up, set your phone to vibrate and if the call comes in, hit the door," said Phil Stella, a workplace communication trainer from Cleveland, Ohio. Just be sure to tell the meeting leader you're expecting the call.

If you don't think a meeting you've been invited to has any relevance to you, it's okay to question the invite, as long as your company supports assertive communication, Stella said. Ask the meeting organizer, "What's the purpose of the meeting?" and "What do you want me to contribute?"

If the answer is nothing, see if the meeting leader will let you off the hook -- or at least call in from desk so you can get some other work done, Stella said.

The Clumsy Conference Caller

When it comes to colorful conference call stories, "Hearing a flushing toilet pretty much tops my list," said Brian Casto, a CEO in Raleigh, N.C.

Obviously, the mute button will get you far when calling in to a remote meeting. But Pete Johnson, a software engineer who works from home, gave me a few more suggestions.

Your safest bet is to multitask in two- to three-minute increments -- an e-mail here, a small, mindless task there (cleaning your desk, folding the laundry), said Johnson, who spends four to six hours a day in meetings and has openly blogged about his multitasking strategy.

If you do lose track of the discussion, instant messaging a trusted colleague for an update works in a pinch, Johnson said.

But what if you get caught not paying attention -- presumably because someone asks you a question and all you hear is your name?

"You can say you didn't understand what they meant and ask them to repeat the question," Johnson said. "Another way is to deflect the question to someone else who's on the line. But the one I almost always go with is to cop to it: 'I'm sorry, you caught me multitasking. Can you repeat the question?'"

Even better if your apology includes the fact that you were engrossed in a white-hot project you're completing for your boss, Johnson added.

The Sloppy Meeting Leader

Of course, there's nothing more humiliating than being caught multitasking when you're the one running the meeting.

"Funniest thing I ever saw was a person giving a speech to a bunch of corporate folks at a seminar on getting organized and learning to prioritize, emphasizing the need to unplug from all gadgets as a way to get actual work done," said professional organizer Hillary Hutchinson of Charleston, S.C.

As you can probably guess, the presenter got -- and answered -- a call at that precise moment.

"The crowd reaction was somewhere between complete hilarity and total disbelief," Hutchinson said.

Still, that isn't the funniest story I've heard about distracted presenters.

Rosen, the business communication coach, got this shocker during a student's final presentation in a marketing course she teaches to executives from the around the world:

"A man from Spain (we'll call him Ignacio) opened a presentation he had been working on during the last minutes before he went on stage," Rosen said. "With one click on a PowerPoint that was labeled 'new,' the class was treated to naked photos of Ignacio's girlfriend."

Meeting leaders, let that be a lesson to you: turn off your cell phone, shut down your instant messaging service, make sure your desktop background does not feature a picture of you in your swim trunks and for the love of god, triple-check that you've cued up the correct slide deck.

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Michelle Goodman is a freelance journalist, author and former cubicle dweller. Her books — "My So-Called Freelance Life: How to Survive and Thrive as a Creative Professional for Hire" and "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide: Practical Career Advice for Women Who Think Outside the Cube" -- offer an irreverent take on the traditional career guide. More tips on career change, flex work and the freelance life can be found on her blog,