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Karen Rae Short calls it the "thumb meeting."

Bored employees duck their hands under the table and punch away on their BlackBerrys, texting virtual eye rolls to colleagues also sentenced to a few hours in meeting hell.

As companies emphasize teamwork in an effort to boost flagging morale, workplaces are seeing more meetings and group sessions being called. And leaders trying to make a meeting worthwhile should note: If your message isn't focused, fresh and relevant, you're asking for zone-outs.

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"People sit there and they either sit down and tune out or they bring something else to do," says the Fenelon Falls, Ont.-based meeting consultant and facilitator for the Canadian Management Centre. "Or their body language will be: 'I'm looking at you, I'm paying attention, I'm taking notes, but really what I'm writing down is my shopping list.' "

The key to making that meeting productive, say researchers, is to ditch the stale-news sharing and hone in on what's new.

An analysis of 22 years worth of studies, published in the March issue of the Journal of Applied Psychology, corroborates that theory.

Teams that share unique and new information in group settings perform better in their overall tasks than groups that share more redundant information.

"A lot of times we as teams don't do a very good job of taking stock of what we already know. We'll keep repeating it, but we're not digesting it, taking it for what it's worth, then moving on to reveal new information," says Jessica Mesmer-Magnus, a professor at the University of North Carolina Wilmington and lead author of the study. Prof. Mesmer-Magnus and co-author Leslie DeChurch of the University of Florida analyzed 72 studies on information sharing in the workplace.

Employees tend to share redundant information because it makes them feel empowered, smart and in control. And sharing common knowledge also fosters what Prof. Mesmer-Magnus calls a "socio-emotional" bond in the group, which is especially crucial at a time when some employees shy away from groups and fixate on their job-security concerns.

Still, Prof. Mesmer-Magnus thinks longer, more carefully planned meetings can be a bonus. Sharing a lot is good, she says; it means there's a greater chance something new and interesting will arise.

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"I think that meetings in general can be effective, but a lot has to do with how they're organized, how they're run, the structure of the meetings, the way in which decisions are framed."

But sharing things with a group can also make employees feel self-conscious, says Vincent Marsh, a Halifax-based senior specialist in leadership and team development with Deloitte.

"Teams can create an environment, consciously or unconsciously, where it's hard to share new ideas because it means the person has to be vulnerable," he says. "They wind up holding their opinions to themselves because they're not feeling the idea will be respected, or it will be judged harshly."

Employees are often scared of standing out in a crowd during tough economic times, he says. But that self-consciousness only feeds unfocused and unproductive meetings.

Chris Siems, a senior manager in the collections department of a major bank in Toronto, knows all about it. A recent meeting of his dragged on and stole time he felt could have been better spent.

"The first 45 minutes of the one-hour meeting were spent reading - out loud - the information that had already been gathered. Unfortunately we didn't have time to answer the questions that the meeting was scheduled for, so we had to reschedule a second meeting to complete that task," he wrote in an e-mail crafted while he participated in a teleconference with other workmates.

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"I just kind of got progressively frustrated, and I was trying to think of a way to interject so we could redirect the meeting," he said in a follow-up phone call. "My mind wandered looking out the window, just checking out the weather. There really was no value."

A fear of rocking the boat, plus power and respect dynamics make it tough to steer a wayward meeting back on track, says Mr. Marsh.

"When a variety of different ideas are thrown on the table, sometimes they can be in conflict," he says. "This hesitation for people to throw out differing views actually can make it harder for teams to make the right decision."

Having a schedule set ahead of time, briefly going through known information first, and then getting to the point of the meeting is the best way to keep things on the straight and narrow, he says.

And even if we're doing meetings right, the recession is making some employees shrink from teamwork and group sessions altogether. A British survey found that employees have dropped the ball on teamwork and have become more insular since the economic downturn began to threaten their sense of job security. More than 1 in 10 of 3,000 surveyed admitted to cowering from teamwork, and just 19 per cent said they prefer working with others.

"The research showed that [employees]were trying to prove their individual worth, in a sort of personal protectionism," says Mike Jarvis, spokesman for London-based BT Business, which commissioned the survey. "They were trying to own things and be connected with successful projects as a way of securing their own employment, maybe to the detriment of effective teamwork."

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He says this is not a good time for employees to take on this anti-group-work crusade.

"The last thing you need when times are tough and there's a global downturn is for people to get to a state of mind where they're worried so much about their jobs that they aren't being effective," he says.

On the flipside, people may be more willing to attend meetings if they think it'll help them keep their jobs, says Ms. Rae Short of the Canadian Management Centre. But that doesn't mean they're going to like it.

"People complain about meetings, no matter what's going on in the world and the economy," she says. "I think that if they have some sense of power and control in participating in the meetings, they're more positive toward it."

*****

Top 5 signs of zone-out

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Top five signs your teammates would rather be somewhere else, courtesy of leadership and team-building specialist Vincent Marsh of Deloitte in Halifax:

5) You ask a question and hear crickets. Well, not literally, but there isn't a whole lot of uptake either.

4) A decision is reached too quickly and the meeting feels rushed. Watch out - that could mean the decision made isn't the best one.

3) They have a laptop propped in front of them, and may have your spreadsheet open, but there's also a window for solitaire or Facebook.

2) The meeting begins late. "When people are really engaged in the topic and it's important to them, they're there right on time."

1) They're snoring.

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Sarah Boesveld

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