Dealing with the Dilemma of Digital Devices in Meetings

Commentary: Should they be banned or embraced? From the perspective of a physician leader, the objective is to manage expectations. 

Let’s face it: We live in a digital world.

I’m a baby boomer, and I admit I’m slightly illiterate in the area of social media, but I’m also aware that emails, texts and tweets are streaming our way at an increasing and alarming pace.

So, let’s say we are in a meeting that we either don’t need to attend, don’t want to attend or is just plain boring. We hear or feel the buzz of a text or email. Should we look? Should we respond? What’s proper etiquette? Will we be perceived as rude? Will we get in trouble with the boss? Does it make us angry when someone answers a text or email in a meeting? Do we think it’s ridiculous for others to be upset when we attend to our mobile devices?


Michael R. Canady

Lots of questions. Unfortunately, no easy answers. But maybe I can provide some guidelines and processes you can use to live symbiotically with your devices in an ever-challenging digital environment.

From the perspective of a physician leader, the objective is to manage expectations. What once was a mindset of “I carry a pager and have to be immediately available” is now “I have a cellphone and when it buzzes, what do I do?” The Pavlov’s dog analogy is just too irresistible to be left unconsidered. Are there any true administrative emergencies that require immediate attention to a mobile device during a meeting? Probably not, but there are no absolutes.

From another perspective, it’s hard to believe, but as recently as 20 years ago, the issue did not even exist. In 1995, it would have been unusual to see a laptop in a meeting. Cellphone technology existed — possibly in the form of a five-pound bag that was good for nothing more than making phone calls.

Computer technology has followed Moore’s law of rapid and inevitable technological advancements, but has our ability to manage that technology kept pace? Again, it depends. If you grew up in a connected world, you might be close to the cutting edge. However, if you happen to be a little more “seasoned,” maybe not.

If you are a baby boomer, you may find it almost unconscionable that someone would send a text message while in a meeting. If you are a millennial, you could wonder why anyone would ever have a problem with it.

The real crime, if any, is to remain silent on the issue in your organization.

More Than Meetings

A 2016 posting on the event-planning website speaks to the overall issue. That posting cited a study by IMEX America in conjunction with Meeting Professionals International, which says 40 percent of respondents agreed with the following:

“To maximize attention, delegates should be banned from using personal devices during conference sessions and meetings. They should be told to switch them off and put them away before the meeting starts.”

The general tenor of BizBash’s response was to disagree with this notion, essentially stating that it would be almost impossible to enforce a ban, so it’s better to embrace the technology and use it to your advantage.

There are plenty of articles purporting the problem isn’t the device, it’s the individual. And there are plenty of articles that state the opposite, such as one from Forbes titled “Why Successful People Never Bring Smartphones Into Meetings.” The literature is replete with information supporting just about any position on this issue.

To be sure, mobile devices can be an issue in other workplace areas, not just meetings. Many organizations have policies that prohibit the use of personal cellphones while working. This can be difficult to monitor and even more challenging to enforce. What about breaks or the lunch hour? I suspect that there are some individuals who are so tied to their device that they would rather use social media than eat. It is probably best to allow individuals to access their device during break time as long as it does not interfere with work.

Along those lines is the use of devices in the operating room — an issue that can pose, and has posed, a malpractice liability risk. I recently was informed by an OR technician that she was very careful not to use her cellphone in the operating room. When calling a representative during a case, she left and made the call from the locker room. I politely explained to her that while I appreciated her effort, I doubted that the cell tower would differentiate the OR from the locker room. Better to use the landline.

There are several defenses for the use of devices in meetings. The most common is that individuals have no time outside of meetings to respond. While this sometimes is true, better time management is probably the solution. Another is that the individual is just “multitasking.” Some would respond that the definition of multitasking is doing several things badly at the same time. Maybe some individuals can focus on several things at the same time in a diligent fashion, but they are more likely the exception than the rule.

If you're a baby boomer, you may find it almost unconscionable that someone would send a text  while in a meeting. If you're a millennial, you may wonder why anyone would ever have a problem with it.

So is it really about the devices? Who’s to say that the fastidious note taker in the corner is doing work even remotely related to the meeting at hand? He or she could be making a list of teams for the afternoon golf tournament, writing notes for their novel or doing just about anything else.

The notes might even be related to other business within the organization, but who knows? I have to admit that I’ve always been slightly jealous of those people because I have never been very good at writing things down in meetings. If I can be even more candid, I jotted down some notes for this article while in a meeting at work.

Not Quite Commandments

After reviewing multiple discussions about this issue, I have concluded that this is more of an individual issue than a corporate one. Here are 10 suggestions, with a few absolutes, for taming the mobile device beast in the workplace.

Never have your ringer on at work. It’s rude, inconsiderate and annoying to others. It’s probably even better to switch the device to “do not disturb.” That way, it won’t disturb others (buzzing is almost as bad as ringing) or distract you.

Never take a phone call in a meeting. This should be an almost inviolable rule. If you recognize the caller and need to take it, let it go to voicemail. Step out of the room at an appropriate time and return the call. This sounds like common sense but, amazingly, it is not uncommon to see someone answer a call and step out while talking. This is a definitive sin of mobile-device meeting etiquette.

Make meetings interesting. Again, this requires a significant component of individual responsibility, but if you run a meeting, it is your responsibility to engage the attendees to the greatest extent possible. If you notice heads nodding (and not just the ones who always nod off — a topic for another day) and several individuals consulting their devices, there may be a problem with the meeting. It is impossible to make every meeting totally energetic, but do your best.

Build breaks into meetings. Most adults have been conditioned to focus for about 50 minutes in educational settings from high school to college and beyond. Anything longer than this should include a break, which allows for checking emails, texts, etc. For those bosses who argue that watching two-hour movies refutes this notion, I would say that watching an entertaining movie and participating in a workplace meeting require distinctly different types of mental focus. There are few issues that cannot wait 50 minutes to be addressed. If you insist on longer meetings without breaks, make it clear that it is OK to step out as needed.

Develop meeting expectations. For new meetings, a great way to start is to address negotiables and non-negotiables: Majority rules, but the leader must have veto power. It may be the will of the group to ban devices for certain types of meetings. For example, looking at a text might be OK, but replying might not. The rules may be driven by the purpose of the meeting, the attendees and whether it is a frequently occurring event, but the key is accountability. Each individual must accept the will of the group in order for this to work. If any member is not willing to abide by the rules, maybe they should not be a part of the group.

Determine the needs of the group. Depending on the situation, individuals might not be comfortable expressing their real opinions about mobile devices face to face. If 90 percent of a group doesn’t agree with the rules that have been established, conflict is likely. Better to regroup and come up with rules upon which all can agree.

Consider laptops mobile devices. They really are. Some people will hide behind the notion that “I need my laptop to take notes,” but the only person in the room with a computer should be the one who is taking the official notes. Again, setting ground rules is the key. There might be legitimate reasons or needs for having a computer in a meeting, but I suspect it is less necessary than we are willing to admit. Is it better to take paper notes? Maybe, but again, are the notes about the meeting? Who knows? Back to individual accountability.

Use technology when it makes sense. There are times when being connected makes sense. For example, there is an obvious benefit to teleconferencing, but even then I often wonder what the individual on the other end is really doing. They might appear to be totally engaged but in reality are buying stuff on Amazon. When using this type of technology, whatever rules apply to those in the main meeting room should apply to all who attend. I have known individuals who were physically present at the office but chose to attend a meeting by teleconference to accomplish other tasks simultaneously. Maybe those people don’t need to be in the meeting.

Consider corporate policies. It is probably inappropriate to ban mobile devices from all meetings. We do live in a connected world. A better plan is to openly discuss the issue at high levels within the organization. At a corporate level, guidelines should be developed that make sense for the organization but allow for flexibility. Conversely, it makes no sense to allow policies in which anything goes. Focus on reasonable, individual accountability with guidelines that allow different kinds of rules for different types of meetings. There are no one-size-fits-all solutions to this problem. Ask other executives in similar positions in other organizations how they approach the situation.

Embrace technology when you can. We do live in an increasingly connected world with mobile devices that provide increasing functionality and a multitude of applications that increase productivity. Try them out and keep what works.

Ultimately, there are few absolutes on the issue of devices in meetings, but one thing is certain: The development of technology will not slow down. If we embrace anything, it should be the process we use to clarify how we can best use this technology on our frontlines to improve productivity. Good luck with your connections.

Michael R. Canady, MD, MBA, CPE, FACS, is chief executive officer of Ohio-based Holzer Health System. He wrote this for the American Association for Physician Leadership in 2017.

Topics: Management Journal

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