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Image courtesy of Mobility Digest

Recently I read an interesting post/piece of advice on LinkedIn about smartphone use during meetings in the corporate environment. The author, Travis Bradberry, provides a number of observations (mostly negative) and recommendations (ditto) regarding the use–or non-use, I really should say–of smartphones in meetings.  It’s a thoughtful article, but it misses a few points and, because I’m a blowhard, I thought I’d share.

I’ve been in high tech for a long time, and as you might expect from a bunch of nerds, we like to have the latest gear.  (I remember vividly a meeting in the late 90s, when the first PDAs came out; the meeting concluded, and then every nerd in the room gathered around the guy who had a new PDA, peppering him with questions, wanting to play with it.  We love our tech, we nerds.)  The point being that smartphones probably filtered into the meetings I attend in advance of, say, Wall St. banker meetings or Madison Avenue ad team meetings or whatnot.  By 2008, every nerd in high tech probably had an iPhone or a not-unreasonable facsimile.  So I’ve had plenty of real-world experience on how tech use and meetings collide.

Meetings are hard.  Not “hard” in the sense that working 14 hours in the heat of a tobacco field is hard, or down in a coal mine, or even driving a truck.  But the purpose of a meeting is to get agreement on the items this particular group of people has to decide on, or relay some critical information to a group.  And the hard part is getting those done without petty bickering; boring the majority of the people (all at once or in turn as topics come up that only one or two people care about); pedantic descent into arcane details (engineers do this a lot); not getting agreement; losing control of the meeting so the key information isn’t relayed; and on and on.

By far the biggest risk for a meeting attendee–particularly when you’re attending a meeting run by someone several levels above you in the hierarchy–is massive, profound, unbelievable boredom.  This isn’t anyone’s fault; if executives didn’t meet with the “individual contributors” (as we working stiffs are called), they would (rightly) be seen as “out of touch”, so they need to “address the troops” on some kind of regular basis.  The problem with this is your typical executive sees the world from such a rarefied level, where everything is corporate profit and loss, meetings with other executives at other companies, trips to give talks at various industry events, meeting with high-level politicians, etc., that to an IC they are speaking of stuff that has very little to do with an IC’s day-to-day (or even year-to-year) life.  Sure, it’s important that they’re out there doing that stuff, getting government contracts, and so on, but you’re writing code/error checking code/writing documentation/creating marketing collateral/selling to other companies/doing IT work/etc., and that stuff, well, in a very real way it simply doesn’t matter.

Even when an exec is meeting with a small group, it’s important to remember that he (it’s almost always a “he”) has very little idea of what the people in the room with him do day-to-day.  In my field, I’ve met with many executives who had no idea what a tech writer even was, let alone what I did every day.  So as you might imagine, there’s a pretty big disconnect between the executive and the ICs in that room.  The executive wants to make contact, but the people are bored.  And what to do is always a challenge.  And your typical IC is constantly aware that every minute he or she spends in that room is one minute less spent fixing code/writing content/doing IT work/etc.  What to do?

Back in the day, people took notes in notebooks, on memo pads, on graph paper, etc.  Some physical method of keeping track of things.  And in those boring meetings, you could simply doodle, or work on your novel, or write sarcastic notes to yourself, or maybe polish off that thank-you note to granny.

Laptops, tablets, and smartphones are an absolute boon to the boring meeting issue.  If you can get away with bringing a full laptop–and this has become more acceptable over the years–and the meeting is such that your participation is unneeded other than your physical presence in the room, you can get work done, check your email, and even discreetly web surf (if you have the nerve).  That meeting time is much less wasted.  Yes, there was a big push to get people to leave their laptops behind for meetings, but over time people have recognized that a) It didn’t do much good, and b) Plenty of people take their notes on their laptops.  (In my case, I used an elective at age 12 in order to take typing, writing was such a laborious chore for me.)

(The “Agile stand-up”, by the way, is one attempt to battle this from two directions. On the one hand, these meetings are limited to 15 minutes, guaranteeing to the participants that any boredom will be short-lived.  And since you’re literally supposed to be standing up, using a laptop is pretty much impossible.)

But smartphones (and Blackberry’s back in the day) allow you to do Internet stuff anywhere, with a tiny device.  And as we’ve reached the saturation point with smartphones in the population (and you can guess how saturated the high tech industry is!), people have come to use their smartphones instead.  And this is really honking off some people, as Mr. Bradberry points out.  Unfortunately, some of the suggestions he makes, and the assumptions behind them, bear a bit more examination.

For example, Bradberry points out “The more money people make the less they approve of smartphone use.” Alas, the more money people make, the higher up they usually are in the corporation, and those folks tend to use their smartphones more during meetings than anyone.  (Some of them seem to be using them as another way in which execs show their importance to the peons–“Your puny meeting is not nearly as important as my daughter’s Instagram pic that she just texted me, but please do carry on.”)  There are a couple of issues here, the most obvious of which is the blatant double-standard.

But to be blunt, one issue is that meetings are too frequent, too long, too boring, and include people that they don’t need to. Executives and directors live by meetings–it’s a major part of their job–but individual contributors don’t, and forcing them to attend a ton of meetings is not an efficient use of their time. Certainly some amount of attendance is necessary to coordinate work, but in my experience the amount of meetings and meeting length is excessive. People break out their laptops, tablets, and smartphones in self-defense.  If you want to continue to see “productivity increases”, Mr. or Ms. Executive, you shouldn’t squawk when your employees are trying to squeeze in work during boring meetings.

Should people be playing Tetris or Minecraft of checking their Twitter feed while the VP is lecturing?  No; it’s rude.  But on the other hand, if the room falls asleep because the exec is speaking so far above their heads they can’t even see his tail-lights, that’s even more rude.  If you see a lot of smartphones out, might want to reality-check your agenda, or engage with your folks more directly.

So the second part of this is: Executives need to recognize that individual contributors are not thrilled to be taking time out of their day to watch power-point presentations and listen to (as Peter put it in “Office Space”) “eight different bosses drone on about mission statements”. Keep your meetings to the point, concise, and as short as absolutely possible. If you can end a scheduled 1-hour meeting in 20 minutes, your people will love you, and smartphone, tablet, and laptop use will plummet.

Bradberry cites some stats that I think are important to keep in mind:

  • 86% think it’s inappropriate to answer phone calls during meetings
  • 84% think it’s inappropriate to write texts or emails during meetings
  • 66% think it’s inappropriate to write texts or emails even during lunches offsite

I have to agree that people answering calls during meetings seem rude.  But you know: I’ve done it.  Because my boy had injured himself and I needed to respond right away, or because my wife was in a dire situation because her car had broken down on the freeway.  I would like to see some stats, but I don’t get the sense that people answer their smartphones for any reason other than critical ones during meetings.  And (again in my experience) they leave the room so as to provide minimum disturbance.  In high tech, this doesn’t seem to bug people very much.  And honestly I think that’s because tech folks are more used to tech, and they have started to create etiquette to deal with the new smartphone reality.

Smartphone etiquette is still evolving. It was once verboten for folks to bring laptops to meetings; then we went through a period where it seemed that everyone was bringing their laptops but no one was paying attention; then a period where laptop use in many companies expressly forbidden during meetings (which was hell on me as I noted above). But now some people bring them for note taking, presenting information, etc., and some don’t, and those that do seem to better recognize that they need to practice active listening even when the lid on their device is open. Soon, it won’t be an issue. Smartphone use in meetings will evolve similarly, I predict. Smartphones are really only 7 years old; it will take a little time.

So in short, yes, ICs need to be aware that it honks people off to be seen taking out your smartphone, even if you’re using it for note-taking. But managers and execs need to also recognize that meetings are seen by ICs as (at best) a necessary evil, and do their part to keep them short, to the point, and infrequent.

That’s my worm’s-eye view, anyway.  (And I’m not the only one who feels this way.)

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