The Wall Street Journal recently the age-old (well, decade-old) complaint that people are using their cellphones during meetings. The article opens with a typical anecdote:

Two years ago, the chief executive of Brown, Parker & DeMarinis Advertising paused for a moment to look across the meeting room as he delivered a presentation. The majority of those gathered were fiddling with their phones.

"I lost it," says Mr. Brown.

In his anger, he issued a companywide edict: "Don't show up at a meeting with me with your phone. If someone shows up with their phone, it'll be their last meeting."

We're supposed to empathize with the CEO but, the way I see it, the problem is the CEO not the cellphones. Here's why:

  1. He's giving a presentation, which is an inefficient way to communicate.
  2. He's boring everybody, as evidenced by the fact they're using their phones.
  3. He's over-reacting because (at some level) he knows he's boring people.
  4. He's arm-twisting his employees into becoming his captive audience. Ugh.
  5. He thinks his employees are too stupid to multitask during a presentation.

Look, when people check their phones during meetings, it's not because they're addicted to their phones. It's because what's happening online is more interesting and more  important than what's happening at your meeting.

Cellphones aren't a distraction; they're merely a way to help people get something done while otherwise stuck in yet another dumb meeting. That's a vast improvement from the past when everybody had to sit and suffer.

When I worked in a huge tech firm (this was before cellphones and laptops), I learned how to seem utterly fascinated--eyes wide, nodding occasionally--while my mind was elsewhere.

I either daydreamed or directed my mental attention to whatever project I would have been working on, had I not been required to be at this dumb meeting. Indeed, I learned to write entire documents mentally, so that afterwards I could just type them up.

I was, in short, multitasking. I dedicated maybe 5% of my focus to the meeting, just enough so that I could shift my attention to being "present" in the (rare) event that somebody said something useful, important, or (rarer still) original.

If I had had a cellphone back then, I would definitely have been fiddling with it, because the problem isn't technology, it's the meetings that are so slow-paced and boring that everyone would rather be elsewhere.

The solution to the "employees fiddling with cellphones during meetings" problem isn't to ban them from the conference rooms. The solution is to:

  1. Vastly limit the number of meetings.
  2. Keep those meetings very short and sweet.
  3. Use written documents rather than PowerPoint.
  4. Let attendees judge how much attention a meeting deserves.
  5. Make it OK to leave meetings where you're not adding value.

In other words, cellphones aren't a distraction from making your firm successful. What's happening on everyone's cellphones IS what's going to make your business successful. Get it?

Published on: May 21, 2018
Like this column? Sign up to subscribe to email alerts and you'll never miss a post.