Everyone hates it when others check their smartphones or other mobile devices during a meeting. And yet everyone does it.

In a recent survey by Robert Half Management Resources, only 6 percent of managers said they thought it was OK to pull out a mobile device and view messages and/or email during a meeting. The remaining 94 percent thought people should never check their smartphones, or only to deal with something urgent, or only if they excused themselves and left the meeting while doing so. That sentiment is particularly strong among small business managers. About 40 percent of those from companies with fewer than 100 employees saying that smartphone use in meetings is never OK.

With bosses so firmly aligned against smartphone use in meetings you'd think it'd be a rare occurrence. But of course it isn't: Two thirds of managers reported that smartphone use in meetings was either very common or somewhat common in their experience. Maybe it's like showing off vacation pictures: We dislike it when someone else does it but think it's just fine when we do it ourselves.

What to do? Assuming you're part of the 94-percent majority, how can you reduce--or maybe even eliminate--smartphone use during your next meeting? Here are some ideas to try:

1. Make the rules clear.

Movie theaters across the land tell audience in so many words that texting during a feature is unacceptable, yet some people continue to think that it's fine. The same may be happening in your own conference room. You're the boss, so it's up to you to articulate the rules, whatever they may be: "If you must use your smartphone, excuse yourself and leave," or "Only use your smartphone for an emergency," or "I expect that your smartphone will be left at your desk."

2. Then follow them yourself.

"Do as I say, not as I do," doesn't work in parenting, and it doesn't work in management either. So if you've laid down a smartphone ban in your meetings, you better leave your own phone behind as well. Otherwise you'll just lose respect from your employees, and they'll be tempted to try to sneak peeks at their own phones when they think you aren't looking.

3. Don't waste people's time.

Employees will be much more tempted to check their email if they're sitting through a recap of things they already know, or not-really-listening to a lot of discussion that does not pertain to them. Any time someone might be tempted to doodle, they'll be twice as tempted to check their smartphone, which is both much more appealing and has the potential to actually be productive.

So don't waste people's time. If the next 15 minutes doesn't concern half the people in the meeting, invite those people to leave and return, or step into the hallway (where you'll have provided comfortable chairs) while they aren't needed. Don't start the meeting by reviewing what everyone already knows. And don't have more meetings than you need in the first place.

4. Don't be boring.

It's hard enough to lead a meeting, let alone be entertaining while doing so. But do it if you can, perhaps by carefully going over the material that needs to be covered and thinking how to present it in the most engaging, unexpected way. Don't let others be boring either. You need to give people the opportunity to express their points of view, but if someone is rambling, argumentative, or focusing on minutiae, cut that person off politely before you lose everyone else.

5. Stand up.

Some companies hold meetings while standing. That won't work all the time of course, but it's great for things like daily or weekly check-ins. That encourages you and everyone else to keep things brief and to the point. And it makes it much harder to check a smartphone, especially without being seen.

6. Plan for smartwatches.

CES this year is dominated by smartwatches and with Apple's entry into this market coming in March, smartwatches will soon be truly ubiquitous. With smartwatches, people can check their text, email, and social media messages without ever touching their phones. And you can't reasonably instruct people to take off their watches before entering a meeting.

Smartwatches are new to the workplace, and most companies don't have policies about them yet. To complicate matters, many commonly used fitness trackers also provide email and texting. Whatever policy you set about smartphone use in meetings should take smartwatches and fitness trackers into account as well.

7. Handle millennials thoughtfully.

Millennials are more likely to use smartphones than any other age group, and also more likely to depend entirely on mobile devices for all their computing activity. Smartphone use is, of course, a millennial stereotype that may or may not apply to individuals at your company. But many millennials grew up with smartphones around in a way that their elders did not and that may affect their view of what constitutes normal or courteous smartphone behavior.

8. Consider the possible advantages of smartphones in meetings.

If smartphones in meetings seem like nothing but a negative, consider how quickly they can be used to grab a quick answer to a question, find a statistic, or check on the status of a project. Among some social groups, using smartphones' voice commands is considered more polite because it can make them seem like another participant in the conversation--one who can contribute useful information when needed. Whatever your approach, it may be better to use smartphones as a tool than exile them completely.

Either way, it's smart to set boundaries around smartphone use in meetings. Consider your company's culture, the meeting participants, the meeting purpose and the mood you're trying to set. Then create a smartphone policy that will help you get there.

Published on: Jan 8, 2015
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