31

When in a meeting, there are often little things that come up in the meeting that could just be done during the meeting, instead of recording actions, doing it after and the reporting back at the next meeting.

I am not talking about working on other projects, checking email, or generally working during a meeting, but instead am talking about immediately addressing issues that are mentioned during the meeting itself.

Is this a good philosophy, or are there problems with it?

Perhaps, it would have to be subjective to the culture of the company, content of the meeting, amount of people in the meeting, type of meeting {presentation/discussion}, and other factors? Perhaps the answer is not a yes or no, to the question, but rather some insight into such factors.

An example (which obviously tend to favor an affirmative answer):

  • Getting some more information to clarify an unexpected question raised during the meeting (from database, CRM, Google)
  • 3
    Are you asking if a task that can resolved in 2 minutes comes up at a meeting, can you fix it then? Or do you mean something unrelated to the project being discussed at the meeting? – mhoran_psprep Apr 22 '12 at 3:05
  • 6
    @mhoran_psprep I think it's pretty clear from the question that he's asking about tasks that come up in the course of the meeting... despite everyone assuming unrelated tasks in their answers – sq33G Apr 22 '12 at 6:34
  • 2
    I've edited the question so that it is more clear. – jcmeloni Apr 22 '12 at 15:43
  • Correct, and I don't think people should assume traditional corporate culture either - I work in the software industry where change is embraced. – Todd Apr 23 '12 at 1:55
  • "Should people be allowed" is a red flag for bad subjective. Do you have an actual problem you are dealing with? As written this question needs to be closed. – IDrinkandIKnowThings Apr 23 '12 at 19:56

12 Answers 12

14

If the style of the meeting makes it appropriate then yes complete those small tasks. If the meeting is close to being a hackathon then not only is it appropriate, but it is probably even appreciated. I have even used a smartphone/laptop to pull up relevant info to keep the meeting moving.

I have also been involved with projects where the meeting is designed to be one way communication, so fixing the problem as soon as it is mentioned would be seen as disrespectful.

I prefer meetings and projects where participants feel comfortable with responding to requests in real time.

  • 1
    +1 - there are many very different styles of meetings and reasons for meetings. I encounter both pretty regularly. We definitely have meetings where I'm still crunching data as new questions come up, especially if the issue is urgent - and some meetings where that wouldn't be acceptable at all. – weronika Apr 24 '12 at 5:32
  • (Building from weronikas comment) Yes, so collaborative [hackathon] or urgent [fixing a problem] meetings. mhoran_psprep seems to be describing team-work, some might argue that it's not so much a meeting, but I would categorise it as such. – Todd Apr 25 '12 at 2:49
19

It's generally a no-no.

If you don't think you should be at the meeting in the first place because the issues don't concern you, talk to the people who arrange the attendee list.

If the meetings drag on for too long before they get to you, talk to the meeting organizer to see if you can split one big meeting up to a few smaller ones where less time is wasted.

If your department is involved, lets say programmers, and you are at the meeting. Even if they are discussing other programmer's issues, it is still your concern since you need to know what's going on around you. What if the person whose issue is being discussed gets hit by a bus?

It's just bad manners. There are lots of ways to deal with long meetings, doing work, imho, isn't one of them.

17

Only if it helps the meeting.

I would consider these cases to be acceptable and helpful:

  • Looking up a piece of information that is missing or incorrect in the presentation materials
  • Doing a quick google search for a more detailed version of a presented document (for example, look up the full price chart from a vendor's website)

Don't do research or try to solve a problem during a meeting.

The following would fall in this bad category:

  • Do a "quick" google search to find and compare options for an item under discussion (a diligent comparison would require some concentrated effort, which doesn't interest most of the people in the room)

  • Start incorporating the feedback by others into the deliverables during the meeting (just make a note, move on, and contact only the interested parties later)

  • I tend to agree: such work is to correct a mistake or oversight of meeting planning. I still feel there are scenarios where working in a meeting may be appropriate. And given the refinement of the question - I need to find when (if ever) it's appropriate. – Todd Apr 25 '12 at 2:46
  • I would also include handling things remotely that would interrupt the meeting or preclude your attendence. People understand if you need to answer quick IMs from your team, or something else critical but not distracting. – Telastyn Aug 10 '12 at 17:44
10

I really think it would depend on whether the others at the meeting would be grateful for your promptness (closing the issue before the meeting even ends) or unhappy at losing your attention or the flow of the meeting while you do the fix.

7

If someone is working on their laptop during a meeting, it means they think that work is more important than the meeting. To put it more bluntly, they believe you're wasting their time.

Do you trust them to make that decision correctly? If yes, it's time to change what you're doing. If no, it's time to change where you work.

Meeting behaviors are part of the corporate culture. Don't assume that how you do meetings right now is the only way to do them.

For example, the value each person gets out of a meeting decreases with the number of people in there. Since this loss is repeated with every attendee, meeting value decreases O(n^2). Small meetings are easier to make valuable.

A short meeting only has enough time for the most important topics. Thus, longer meetings spend time on less important topics, reducing the value of everyone's time. Keeping meetings short also helps people feel confident that they will have time to do their regular work later, so they can give their full attention to this meeting now, increasing its value for everyone.

I've been to a lot of meetings where the someone hands out copies of a document for everyone to read and comment on in the meeting. This is terribly inefficient. The problem is, in a rushed culture, people won't read beforehand because they don't think they have enough time. This is a cultural concern that must be changed to get the most value out of meetings.

6

"It depends."

At a previous (consulting) job it wasn't uncommon to spend the entire day in meetings, but still be required to get things done. The meetings really didn't need to take all day, but they did, and there wasn't much to do about that: It was happening, you had to at least be on the phone, and that didn't remove that you needed to get work done.

Meanwhile, while your input might be occasionally needed, you wouldn't need to be an active participant for most of it. Things would also come up in the meetings that needed to be addressed, and if you didn't have to say anything it was frequently more efficient to work on them while listening for key phrases about what you have to do. So you did work.

There are plenty of meetings that people need to attend for one reason or another that they cannot–and are not expected to–dedicate their full attention to, or at least not expected to do so for some percentage of the meeting. It could be argued that this is a flaw in the structure of the meetings, but it's also something that naturally happens when you get a bunch of people in the room: The conversation is not necessarily highly focused and relevant. Sometimes you are only there to answer questions if people have them, or are only going to be an active participant for ten minutes of a thirty minute meeting.

On the other hand, if you are in a small meeting where you are a key participant, even if you could fix an issue that comes up in the scope of the meeting very quickly, it is probably best not to do so if you can reasonably avoid it. You can slow down a meeting too much by missing key details or by having to have instructions repeated, or can block others if they need to wait for you to finish up a task.

Why I think this:

It's easy to say "we should fix this at the meeting organization level," it is a much harder problem to actually do that. Various groups have tried standing-only meetings and other such concepts to try and keep meetings focused, but they frequently meander, or they frequently cover multiple topics for which you only care about a few. Sometimes you know just by the nature of the participant list that it isn't going to start on time, and you make the according arrangements.

Ideally your meetings should be sufficiently short and focused that there's no temptation to fix things in the meeting, because it will be over sufficiently quickly that you can get back to it.

That said, you can try and get the meeting more focused and get people to take irrelevancies offline. You can try to keep the socialization down. You can try to do a lot of things like this… but while you are trying to take those steps there's still going to be work to do, and sometimes (e.g., when you are production support) keeping an eye on a monitor is simply not going to be made optional.

So grimace, try to get the format fixed, and then make the best decision based on cultural norms at the company (some companies tolerate it more than others) and by gauging the level of distraction relative to the level of benefit for the company.

5

It does indeed depend. But I have a great test for how to tell instantly whether what you want to do is ok for the meeting or not:

Hook your laptop to the projector.

You're taking notes? Sending a meeting request? Pulling up the bug count? Changing the priority on the tasks? Then you don't mind who sees that. In fact, it saves you telling people what you're doing.

On the other hand, if you're peeking at Twitter, updating your timesheet, working on another project, or updating your Facebook status to stuck in the worst meeting ever and considering chewing off my own foot then you don't want anyone seeing that.

If there's no physical projector, you can consider this a thought experiment. But I actually want you to really project your screen. It gives you great clarity and crispness on that should I be doing this? is this ok? decision. And it also takes away any grumpiness from someone who's wondering what the heck you're up to.

3

I would say no, it makes the meeting too fragmented.

If there's a lot of topics that are completely irrelevant to you then it's a sign that either you shouldn't be there, or the meeting agenda should be changed (reduced) to only cover items that all participants need to be there for.

Some of the problems it raises are: can generate a lack of respect; can lead to 'double' explanations when it turns out the item was relevant; increases distraction when device clicks, beeps, vibrates, etc.

3

In general I favor not doing other tasks during meetings, if the meeting isn't important enough to you to pay attention, then you shouldn't be attending it.

However in the case of a task that has been discussed or approved during the meeting, it is possible that you could delight someone by fixing it on the spot. For instance we have a client who is problematic at best. Often in a meeting, a discussion of some piece of data that got entered incorrectly (due to a bad client file or a data entry error on the part of the sales rep). Since they are located acoss the country, our meetings are teleconferences and I am at my desk. If I can fix something they bring up, I will make them happier. So when it is something really important (someone can't login for instance)that can be fixed in about 2 minutes or less, I will tell them that and excuse myself for that length of time while they discuss something that is not applicable to me (I can suggest they discuss X from the agenda). If the flow of the meeting would be disrupted by me excusing myself (and all agenda topics require my input), I wait until the meeting is done and then send out an email 5-10 minutes later showing the problem is fixed. Usually I tell them in the meeting that doing the fix won't take long and I will do it as soon as we are finished. This still delights them and isn't a rude indictment of my need not to pay attention.

  • Good answer, that's a very good example, thanks. Vendor/Customer meetings are probably a good answer. I know that I am often, updating specifications during such a meeting (which is possibly more akin to note taking, not actually going work). However, in a more corporate high level meeting, such "doing" is not relevant - perhaps. – Todd Apr 25 '12 at 2:41
3

Good meetings have a planned agenda, but being too rigid can be counteer-productive. Why dicuss a project that has been cancelled just because someone forgot to update the meeting plan.

I don't see a problem with putting things off if you can get something more important accomplished or you find this is a better time. Scheduling conflicts could make it much more difficult to try and assign at a later date. Also, be aware of anyone attending the meeting that is not involved in the task. This can be a problem of inviting too many people. Can ten people be heavily involved in ten different topics at the same time? Doubtful.

I wish more meetings accomplished something rather than talking about it.

2

So for me, It Depends.

I'm lucky enough to be blessed with a convertible tablet PC, and wireless in most meeting rooms, so I usually have it open for making notes in a way that's not obtrusive and let's me also follow what's being said. This means I can do two things fairly easily;

  • If something comes up as a question, or quick action directly related to the meeting, I can get it done there and then (i.e find some info from a network share when someone asks a question, or setup a future meeting when it's discussed)
  • I can check email. I only check subject lines of incoming, but it means 'stop the world' urgent still gets through to me

What I don't do is try to get unrelated work done, it would be possible, but as several have said, it's rude. It means you're in the meeting but not participating.

0

It depends on the culture. My current culture doesn't allow this. Other companies in my space expect it.

A key point that seems to have been missed by others is that other folks may not know what you are doing. You are researching additional details on a relevant topic in the meeting, but as far as others are concerned you might just be updating your facebook page! Also you may be doing the right thing but several others may follow your example, use their laptop, but use it for non-professional stuff.

Many folks find that talking to a crowd of people, many of whom are typing away on their laptop doesn't work well because:

  1. Humans use eye-contact for good communication.
  2. Your are not concentrating 100% on the meeting topic which can basically be seen to be rude.
  3. The implication that other may draw is that you consider the meeting to be less important that what you are doing (browsing, etc.).
  4. The clicking of keys can be a distraction from the main presentation,.

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