Have you ever been at a meeting and noticed that more people were on their cell phones, laptops, or tablets than were paying attention? Sometimes it’s hard to tell. People are getting good at holding their devices just below table top, so all you see is the top of their heads. But this isn’t a good situation.
Meetings can and should be a medium to improve productivity. When we make the commitment to get people in a room for an hour to work on an important set of issues, there had better be a return on the investment. There are significant human resources in that room whose time we are consuming.
The unique value of meetings is that they provide an opportunity for people to concentrate, collaborate, and initiate. There should be a focus on the issue at hand. There should be lively, candid discussion. The meeting should result in action. And it all happens within the same time frame for everybody involved.
None of that goes on when several brains at the table have gone to another planet. It doesn’t happen when people are checking voice mails, checking incoming messages, or editing an unrelated proposal that they have to get out by the end of the day.
This isn’t a generational thing. It’s not whether people can use technology—it’s that they shouldn’t be doing it at a meeting unless it’s directly connected with the issue at hand.
People can only think about one thing at a time. A growing body of research indicates a significant loss of efficiency during multi-tasking. Technical devices often distract people. Some attendees are simply addicted to technology or new information. If a smart phone or tablet are distracting influences, there are those who simply can’t stay focused on the issue or agenda item. In a world of 15-second television commercials offering dramatic eye candy, some individuals simply can’t ignore their hunger for stimulation. They hear or feel their phone vibrate, and it’s virtually impossible for them to stay in focus. And when they stop attending to the person who has the floor at the moment, it causes deterioration of the team.
People who aren’t fully engaged don’t take notice of key comments. They miss nuances of meaning. They might not catch an agreement that‘s made early in the meeting. The others feel insulted and disrespected. They resent the waste of time. As everyone leaves the meeting room they are saying to themselves that once again, this meeting didn’t solve problems—it created them.
What to do? Establish meeting norms for the team. Advance agreement is very important. Without it, taking action when people feel snubbed could seem arbitrary or even hostile.
Here are some suggested standards for personal use of technology during meetings:
- Generally speaking, no one has their laptop or tablet open during discussions. Obviously, though, there will be times when everybody has them open, due to the subject matter—but that’s not what we’re talking about here, is it?
- Attendees are proactive about minimizing the likelihood that they will receive a call during meeting time.
- If someone is expecting an important call, they put their phone on vibrate and turn it over on the table. If it goes off, they quickly check to see if it’s that call. If it is that call, they leave the room and take it. If not, they reject the call and turn their phone back over. This situation should be relatively rare. If it happens frequently, the meeting should be held at another time.
- As an alternative to the two points above, you could agree to ban cell phone activity in the meeting room altogether.
- Extra credit … Anyone who must have communications devices with them during a meeting explains that necessity to the team as the meeting begins.
A word of caution: these rules are logical and understandable. But they can be edgy. They will require dogged attention and enforcement. Consider assigning a sergeant-at-arms to attend to agreed-upon standards during each meeting, rotating the role among all team members. The actual meeting leader should be a different person, if possible.
The Information Age has provided us with some impressive tools. Who could survive now without smart phones, tablets, or laptops? No one could, and neither could organizations.
But who’s in control here? Are we the masters of our tools, or have we allowed our tools to become our masters?
About the author
Dr. Dick Ruhe is a best-selling author, keynote speaker, and senior consulting partner with The Ken Blanchard Companies.