April 23, 2014
Picture this. You are attending a meeting in a boardroom with ten other people. One person is standing at the head of the table, talking and pointing to the obligatory PowerPoint projection. You look around the table. Most of those in attendance are not looking at the presenter or the PowerPoint image at all. A couple of people are typing on their laptops, three are texting on their phones. Another has a tablet perched on his lap and is busy looking at something. One person who did not bring a computer is doodling a complicated pattern all over the margins of the meeting agenda.
What do you think of this? Is it rude? Bad meeting behavior? A poorly-run meeting? The result of ineffective planning, a weak chairperson or undisciplined employees? Most people would agree and express that such behavior is rude and shows no respect. But others might disagree.
What if one of the people typing on their laptops was taking notes? Not everyone takes notes with pen and paper anymore. What if the person with the tablet was fact-checking or seeking additional information based on what he had heard the presenter say? What if one of the people texting on his phone was putting out a fire in his department that would otherwise force him to withdraw from the meeting? And what if the guy who was doodling was doing just that – doodling? People process information differently, and doodling – which has been around a lot longer than portable technology has – might certainly indicate boredom, but might also indicate a need to keep moving while listening; a type of kinesthetic learning in which the body and eyes need to stay occupied while the ears listen. If one of the three people in this scenario who appeared to be texting on her phone was actually playing Angry Birds instead, would that be construed as meeting truancy or new-age doodling?
For centuries people have convened in physical meetings because, prior to the advent of electronic communication, this was the only way to share ideas collectively and in real time. To this day, people still get together in boardrooms and classrooms to talk and to listen and to learn. Human beings will likely continue to meet in person for as long as the species exists, for there are many benefits to physically assembling that simply cannot be replicated anywhere else.
However people do not have the time that they think they used to have; it is not as easy to commit to a one- or two-hour meeting and essentially block the rest of the world out for that period. Most people now ride a continually cresting wave of priorities and expectations, and to ignore them for the better part of an afternoon might bring more trouble than it is worth.
Yet the meeting mindset hasn’t changed much. In many organizations it is expected that attendees arrive on time, that they turn their cellphones to silent and that they sit, face-forward, ready to deliver their undivided attention. Maybe this is still the right way. Or maybe it isn’t. That is largely up to each individual company to decide.
Once that decision is made, what is then needed is a universal policy. If an organization is to stay “old-school” and require that everyone turn off their devices and face-forward, then this needs to be communicated as “meeting policy,” and not be merely expected or assumed. Employees today make their own assumptions. They prefer to use their own tools at work (a concept now called BYOD – bring your own device), so that documents, email and social media interaction arrive on the phone or tablet they themselves have bought, rather than the standard company issue. Hand-in-hand with this concept is the new-age flex-time attitude in which team members of all ages recognize that blocks of work can be done in many different ways at many different times: while standing in line at Starbucks, on the train, from home, at 2:30 p.m., or even 2:30 a.m.
This approach to mobility and self-determination inevitably leaks into corporate meeting culture to the point that it becomes automatic, as in “my phone is there to be used, and I am at this meeting to keep pace while – not instead of – doing something else.” Therefore if a company chooses to silence these devices, it must consciously and unambiguously re-introduce this silence.
On the flip side, if a company wants to play it cool by allowing people to bring and use whatever devices they desire into a meeting, a similar policy must be developed and broadcast, not only to ensure these technically-inclined people actually do agree to pay attention and to produce the required results by the end of the day, but also to inform those who may not share this technological enthusiasm, that bringing devices into a meeting is not rude anti-social behavior, but is in fact the new norm.
In both cases it is essential that people on both sides of the ideological fence are made aware of whatever rules the company decides upon. Rude behavior after all can best be defined by what it is not: it is behavior that does not align with social convention. But unless that convention is explicitly defined and universally recognized, there is nothing for people to refer to.
Ultimately it may be said (and has in fact been said many times) that nothing short of absolute forward-facing focus yields a productive meeting. However there are two factors that can substantially undermine such a blanket statement. The first is that meetings in general have held the title of the greatest time-waster in all of business for many decades, including those that preceded the advent of personal technology. So whatever we were doing prior to the arrival of the smartphone wasn’t working either. There was more doodling and smoking, but not necessarily more productivity.
Secondly, the fact is, these devices are here to stay. Companies that struggle to attract bright young professionals or indeed to keep their current star players cannot afford to expect that these highly mobile people, already well-versed in a high-speed multi-screen environment and used to receiving by-the-second feedback will be willing to sit stock-still for any period longer than 5 minutes. And why should they? Business moves at the speed of thought and if today’s employees don’t match up to the model of the traditional meeting scenario, it will have to be the meeting manager who blinks first.