Is using a smartphone in a meeting allowed?

Posted: July 5, 2010 in Smartphone
Tags: , ,

The knives are out for me and especially for my BlackBerry. A recent poll and a string of internal seminars on the meeting culture within my organisation ranked checking emails during meetings using a smartphone as the top ‘faux behaviour’.

I must say that at first I was annoyed with this conclusion, and even briefly felt ridiculed. But mainly I was surprised that simply the act of checking emails during meetings is considered by the great majority of my co-workers as a no-way-sir. The whole day I kept wondering why, and I couldn’t figure it out. Argument one: it’s not because I’m checking my emails that I’m not actively participating in the meeting (after all only one person at the time can speak). Argument two: my typing is not disturbing anyone, it’s silent and takes place in the palms of my hands. Are people perhaps envying my machine (and its data plan)? I grew too old to leave it this way. Time for a little research.

First some Google. A search learned me that a spirited debate about smartphone etiquette has broken out. To simplify things, traditionalists say the use of BlackBerries and iPhones in meetings is as gauche as ordering out for pizza. Techno-evangelists insist that to ignore real-time text messages in a need-it-yesterday world is to invite peril.
My guess is that the main debate is not about the technology but about the quality of the meetings.

Next some personal observations. One. As web-enabled smartphones have become standard on the belts and in the totes of executives, people in meetings around me are increasingly caving in to temptation to check e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, even (shhh) I’m one of them, but certainly not the only one.
Two. It almost is routine for EU officials and EU project managers to bow heads silently around a conference table — not praying — while others are speaking. I’ve been at conferences where half of the participants were BlackBerrying each other as a submeeting, with a running commentary on the primary meeting, BlackBerries have become like cartoon thought bubbles.

And some more Google. Despite resistance, the etiquette debate on the web seems to be tilting in the favor of smartphone use. I read many executives saying it. Managing directors writing they do it. Summer trainees enjoying it and still produce great work. The baseline is that a few years ago only “the investment banker types” would use BlackBerries in meetings. Now the technology is widely owned, everybody can. It spans gender and generation, private and public sectors. It’s called progress, Madam.

So, is my organisation then wrong to ban its use? It also is a fact that opposition to smartphones in meetings is fierce. The Web is full of stories like as the one about Tom Golisano, a US billionaire and power broker in New York State politics, who pushed to remove Malcolm A. Smith as the State Senate majority leader after the senator met with him on budget matters in April 2009 and spent the time reading e-mail on his BlackBerry. But was Blackberry here the real reason?

I personally had one negative experience using a BlackBerry which took place some months ago. In an effort to be efficient I took notes on BlackBerry instead of paper during a client meeting. After the meeting I got a nasty remark from the client that I spent an hour on my BlackBerry rather than listening. To soothe the client, I read aloud the notes I had taken. It worked.

There are even statistics to be found. For example, a third of more than 5,300 workers polled in May 2009 by Yahoo HotJobs, a career research and job listings Web site, said they frequently checked e-mail in meetings. Nearly 20 percent said they had been castigated for poor manners regarding wireless devices. A remarkable survey of 600 readers in May 2008 showed that 48 percent want a ban on BlackBerry devices in meetings. Half of those want the PDAs to be checked right at the door. The remainder want no rules.

Let’s study the arguments pro and contra and that apply to my personal professional situation. First the arguments in favour of using my BlackBerry in meetings.

  1. Projects and business can be won or lost, depending on how responsive you are to an e-mail message. Clients and sponsors assume they can get you anytime, anywhere. Consultants who aren’t readily available 24/7 tend to languish.
  2. Playful electronic bantering can stimulate creativity in meetings. In pitch meetings, I often traded messages on his my smartphone — jokes, ideas, questions — with colleagues, “things that you might not say out loud”.
  3. When conferences go on, chattering on the keynote speakers just seems to add to the productive energy. And it is a great opener during the coffee breaks.
  4. There is also the issue of image. In many professional circles, where connections are power, making a show of reaching out to those connections even as co-workers are presenting a spreadsheet presentation seems to have become a kind of workplace boast.
  5. I use my BlackBerry during meetings for legitimate reasons: responding to deadline requests, plumbing the Web for data to illuminate an issue under discussion or simply taking notes. A BlackBerry here objectively contributes to the purpose or goals of a meeting.

And now the arguments opposing the use of BlackBerry:

  1. I learned today that constant checking of these devices is considered rude. It’s considered stopping paying attention to someone when they are talking. This is the reason that banning BlackBerry use is considered a social rule. It is an objective fact that driving 160 kilometers an hour will decrease your travel time, but it hardly is acceptable socially.
  2. Until today I mistakenly thought that tapping is not as distracting as talking. In fact co-workers consider it to be every bit as much if not more distracting.
  3. I guess, 95% of the time what people claim to be urgent status is stuff that can wait. Unless they’re heart surgeons, or front line web people, the world can wait 20 or 30 minutes for the meeting to end for them to get to whatever it is. The web will wait. Facebook will wait. It can all wait for you if you have your things together.
  4. And above all: checking your emails is dividing attention. And partial attention generally leads to partial results. Any real meeting, where decisions are being made (e.g. not a status meeting) should require people’s full attention.

I think that this fourth argument really cuts wood. If people are voluntarily comfortable half reading e-mail and half-listening, to me it’s an indicator to me that:

  • There are too many people in the room.
  • Few decisions are being made.
  • I’m failing to facilitate the discussion to keep it on target.
  • The information being conveyed is low priority.
  • I’m wasting face-to-face time with information I could deliver in other ways.
  • If I allow this to go on, I encourage passive attention in meetings, further allowing stupid people to prattle on about low priority things, which further encourages more people to tune out.

This fourth argument is convincing if the meeting is mission critical. However, meetings are often bland and uninformative. They’re not helping you getting your work done any better, while your BlackBerry does just that. So why should you have to sit through a non-critical meeting while other, more important tasks are waiting for action?

And now we come to the core of the issue. I guess the BlackBerry use is a symptom of bad meetings, not the cause. The person running the meeting is the one to point the finger at not the person using his fingers to type emails.

I once had a diner conversation with an experienced project manager who told me that he sometimes looked forward to bland meetings because it allowed him to think through professional problems, make sketches of garden projects and plan his week just using a piece of paper. The boring atmosphere managed to get him in a zen status that relaxed his mind and it opened up. The boring meeting as a fertilizer for efficiency.

In some circles it is now getting customary for professionals to lay BlackBerries or iPhones on a conference table before a meeting — like gunfighters placing their Colt revolvers on the card tables in a saloon. It’s a not-so-subtle way of signaling ‘I’m connected. I’m busy. I’m important. And if this meeting doesn’t hold my interest, I’ve got 10 other things I can do instead.’ Now, that’s a statement.

So again, is a company policy the proper thing to do? If you consider it a social rule, I guess some formal pomp and circumstance is relevant. However, very few companies have policies on smartphone use in meetings, which leaves it up to employees to feel their way across uncertain terrain. Well let’s map the terrain for them.

  1. I agree that the rule should be that meetings should be topless. Yes, I thought otherwise this morning, but I am shifting. That’s also called progress.
  2. I think that different rules apply for in-house in-department meetings (where checking BlackBerries seems an expression of informal collegiality) and those with clients and co-workers from other departments, where the habit is likely to offend.
  3. I also guess there is safety in numbers. The acceptability of checking devices is proportional to the number of people attending the meeting. The more people there are, the less noticeable your typing will be.
  4. More and more I believe in making attendance at meetings binary. Either you are in, or you are out. If the meeting is too boring to keep your attention, then it’s a good sign to both of us that you do not need to be in the room – so get up and leave. Most meetings should be optional anyway: you don’t have to come, but don’t cry if we decide something you wanted to have input on.
  5. No rules without reasons. I think it is wrong to just ban laptops and handhelds with no explanation. Make sure to point out how important it is that the group focus on the task at hand. It’s very hard to argue with that.
  1. Group Mail Manager Professional…

    I found your entry interesting do I’ve added a Trackback to it on my weblog :)…

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