Imagine you just walked into a meeting with your banker.

The main goal: To figure out how to pay for a new house.

You're a little nervous, and you know this meeting will determine your future. You sit down and listen intently to what the banker is saying as he or she covers all of the financial details. Obviously, you are clued in to the discussion, but at one point the banker mentions something a bit odd. It's a minor point about capital gains tax, and the year the rule changed. So, you scratch your head and pull out your phone.

A quick Google search reveals that he's wrong about that specific tax law.

You argue the point, and resolve the issue.

The wonders of technology, right?

Sadly, a new school of thought has emerged, likely propagated by people who did not grow up with phones or tend to stick with a desktop computer during work hours.

One recent report suggested we should ban laptops from meetings, and cited a company called Skift that doesn't allow them. A LinkedIn trending topic emerged, which means people are discussing the merits of using laptops and phones at meetings like crazy. They've cited another report about banning laptops during a lecture, and another that says the allure of a phone or laptop is too great, almost like a box full of donuts. The problem exists even when the device is within reach and not even turned on.

A few years ago, an expert on this topic suggested to me that no one would ever bring a phone to a meeting with a banker. You need to stay focused and intent.

I've pondered that discussion a few times over the years.

Initially, I agreed and it made sense. In fact, I've repeated the story several times. I've also repeated the word "phubbing" (e.g., to phone snub) and explained how it's a bad, terrible, no good thing. A more technical phrase is "continuous partial attention" which is one of the scariest concepts of our age. It means people are always in a state of partial attention because they are either on a phone or thinking about being on a phone.

Here's my problem with all of this.

I don't think phones and laptops should be banned from meetings.

I think boring topics should be banned from meetings.

I once heard a phrase, attributed to the musician David Crowder, that you should do something so cool that you don't need to look at your phone. The same concept should apply to meetings. As someone who frequently mentors college students, I know that the minute a meeting becomes boring and routine, people tend to pull out phones or mindlessly surf on a laptop--suddenly, Fortnite is more interesting. Who can blame them? It's not the laptop's fault. It's the meeting topic and the meeting presenter.

My view is that gadgets can help us verify information, they can help us add to the conversation, to look up interesting facts. Distraction is a bad thing, but there are other ways to solve that problem instead of banning our devices altogether.

In my example of the mortgage meeting, of course you would never mindlessly surf Instagram during the chat. Should you ban phones? Not at all, because they can serve a purpose, especially if you stop someone in mid-sentence and ask politely if you can check on some details. In my meetings with college students, I rarely see people surfing or looking at cat videos because we tend to keep meetings short and lively. And, every meeting is a "working" meeting. Laptops help at meetings, they don't hinder. No one ever focuses on a laptop or phone during a meeting that is lively and engaging.

If someone does start phubbing, it reveals a much deeper problem. If the meeting is important and the discussion is good, and someone still phone surfs, it's a sign that maybe there's a problem with engagement on a project. Sometimes, it's a sign of depression or some other difficulty in life. Or, it's a sign of an unruly employee revealing many other issues for you to worry about other than using a gadget instead of paying attention.

My view is simple: Let the devices stay, but figure out how to make them part of the meeting and not a distraction. Don't use rules and dictums. Make the meeting incredibly worthwhile, engaging, and valuable. Gadgets won't distract people for long.

Published on: Oct 13, 2018