Are Cellphones In Meetings An Issue?

Do Cellphones Hurt or Help Meetings Go Well?

Several years ago, when the move from flip-phones to smartphones started to happen, I found myself facilitating workshops with people who kept using their phones during the workshop. My first thought when it happened was that it was a very rude and inconsiderate behavior.

At the beginning of the workshop, I asked everyone to turn off their phones and keep them off for the entire time. After gaining that agreement at first, I was disappointed and a bit upset that people would try to hide their texting and emailing under the table.

After experiencing those negative feelings a couple times, I realized that I could not continue feeling that way about my workshop participants. I needed to learn more about what was truly happening vs. thinking they were all rude and inconsiderate.

After a good deal of research, I learned that some people have a need to stay connected 24/7 and cannot help themselves. Almost like an addiction. I also learned that, even if a person’s phone is off, they are still distracted, wondering what they are missing.

My research did not fix the problem, but it did help me understand the situation a bit better. Now I simply ask participants to go outside the room, take care of their business, and come back as soon as possible. If you lead meetings and this happens to you, a few things for you to consider:

Meeting participants are expected to respond 24/7. The culture of many organizations these days is that employees are expected to be available by text or email constantly. When they are asked to shut off their phones in a meeting, they may feel that they will get in trouble, or be perceived negatively, if they do what you ask. Some participants may have personal situations where they need to be available 24/7. Be sensitive to those potential roadblocks.

Shutting off phones does not necessarily cut down distraction. When a person that is accustomed to being electronically connected 24/7 suddenly goes dark, it causes anxiety. Wondering what one is missing is a real fear for many of your meeting participants. When that feeling becomes overwhelming, they are not paying complete attention to your meeting anyway. They may be consumed with what others will think about them when they do not respond right away.

People want some input about phone usage. At the beginning of your meeting, when discussing groundrules, put the issue of cellphone usage on the agenda. Give everyone the opportunity to discuss the issue and come up with a solution that they can accept. Understand that there will be people that want phones banned completely, and others that feel cellphones are completely okay. Work hard to find a middle ground, something all parties can agree to even if the decision is not their first choice.

Being heavy-handed may affect your perception as a leader. If you simply make a pronouncement to all of your participants about the rules you want to put in place regarding cellphones, your employees may see that decision as a reflection of your leadership style. If you lay down the law, you may be perceived as not willing to accept input. If you leave the decision completely up to your employees, you may be perceived as giving up too much control. Whatever decision your allow or make, it needs to be reflective of your continuing leadership style.

What about outside of the meeting? The use of cellphones in business is pervasive, we all know that. Studies are showing undue amounts of stress because of it and some people have even brought lawsuits demanding overtime pay for taking calls during off-work hours. Since you are putting rules in place regarding phones in meetings, should you review the policies for cellphone usage outside of work? If you have an expectation, as a leader, that your employees are always available by phone, then you change that expectation in meetings, you may be sending mixed messages.

Cellphones will never go away in our lifetimes. They are essential to us being effective at work, and sometimes effective in our personal lives, as well. Not managed properly, they can be a detriment to meetings.  Managed properly, they can make everyone feel better about meetings and you as a leader.

Steve Schumacher is a management consultant, trainer and public speaker with more than 25 years of experience in numerous industries throughout North America, including aggregates operations. He can be reached at [email protected].

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