Fidget Toys, Crocheting, and Doodling During Meetings?
The new employee, fresh out of graduate school, performed well until his first client Zoom meeting. Then, making no effort to conceal it from the camera, he pulled out a Pop It! toy. When he later explained that the toy helped him to focus, his manager’s eyebrows soared in disbelief.
Leaders are discovering yet another way in which 21st-century workplace habits have changed: more and more employees are using fidget toys and other tactile activities to help maintain their focus, particularly during video meetings. Managers are struggling to tolerate this development, especially in a rocky economy: this week’s jobs report showed the lowest number of US job openings since 2021, and US productivity decreased by 1.7% in 2022—the largest such decline since 1974. In a dog-eat-dog environment, difficulties with focus are hard to swallow. “I can’t quite fathom knitting in a meeting,” says Kristi Drew, global account leader for financial services at Korn Ferry. “If you wouldn’t do it in front of a boss in the office, why would you do it on Zoom?”
That physical movement during work can be beneficial is a longtime mainstay of adult learning design. Conference goodie bags of yore often included stress balls to help enhance attention. Decades before that, antsy adults might quietly have doodled or flipped pens around their fingers during long meetings. Studies show that fidgeting helps people self-regulate, thereby maintaining focus and attention. But managers haven’t gotten used to the spillover of these behaviors into the workplace, often via twenty-somethings whose teachers provided bins of fidget toys in their classrooms. Roughly one in seven US teenagers has been formally diagnosed with ADHD, three times the adult rate.
Experts note that fidget toys are often the lesser of two evils. “Busy hands are at least not clicking on apps and social media,” says business psychologist James Bywater, senior client partner at Korn Ferry. These days, when even the most focused employees find themselves scrolling Twitter during meetings, a Pop It! holds appeal.
Psychologists suggest leaders begin by helping workers to understand what sorts of fidget aids are appropriate, and when. “They need to pick and choose their moments—help them understand how to do that,” says organizational psychologist Kendra Marion, vice president of global assessment services at Korn Ferry. Managers can also incorporate this into the building of an inclusive team culture that is tolerant and open to difference, she says. In an internal team meeting, knitting might be fine; in a lengthy client meeting, a less visible coping strategy might be more appropriate. Marion says it’s a matter of identifying ways that a person can self-regulate that won’t distract others—or drive their bosses batty.
Workers may well make the wrong judgment calls on this, says David Vied, global sector leader for medical devices and diagnostics at Korn Ferry. “There’s a dearth of basic communication skills these days,” he says. He suggests that workplace coaching can help iron out the fine points of company culture and team expectations, such as how to balance personal attention strategies with professional optics and the potential of distracting others.
If multiple employees are reaching for their fidget spinners, that can also be a sign of subpar meeting planning, especially on Zoom. “This is about meeting design: you should not go more than seven minutes without engaging the group,” says Laura Weiss, a principal at Korn Ferry. At numerous meetings, many employees either don’t speak at all or speak minimally, which can create a need for focus aids. The strongest strategy is to design reasonably brief meetings in which all attendees are essential. “If you have the right agenda with the right people on the call, then everyone should be very engaged,” says Sharon Egilinsky, senior leader of the organizational strategy, ESG, and sustainability practice at Korn Ferry.
For more information, please contact Korn Ferry's Workforce Transformation practice.