A while back, a friend (we’ll call her Penelope) complained to me that her manager often wouldn’t pay attention to her in one-on-one meetings. As Penelope poured her heart out and told her manager of her work woes and recent successes, her manager busily listened and offered insightful feedback typed away on her Blackberry, checking messages and responding to e-mails (likely nodding occasionally and raising her head to give Penelope an empty smile or concerned furrowing of her brow).
Troubling, yes? At the time, I was shocked, but since hearing this anecdote, I’ve encountered this type of situation many times myself. My question is, when did the “other” things we’re doing become so important that we can’t pay full attention to the person speaking to us — and is it affecting employees in ways we may not even realize?
Phones and disrespect
The other day, Gini Dietrich, CEO of Arment Dietrich, wrote that the use of phones in meetings is extremely disrespectful — and I agree. As she says, phones aren’t allowed in meetings — although it’s never been expressly stated as a “rule.” It’s just part of the company’s culture. It’s clear that the company’s employees have enough respect for one another not to be tapping away on their phones while someone is talking.
How many times have you walked past a table of people eating lunch and every one of them is texting or e-mailing? Although the sight of it always seems ridiculous to me, I’m in no way innocent of the texting-at-restaurants trend. However, in the workplace, work needs to get done (often in a team setting), attention needs to be paid to the matter at hand, and the expectation should be different. Shouldn’t it?
What kind of message are you sending to employees?
The people using smart phones in meetings aren’t always lower-level employees; often, they’re managers and leaders. After all, leadership sets the tone for what’s appropriate and what’s not — and employees follow their lead. If a leadership figure is habitually texting, e-mailing, or browsing on a phone during meetings, how do you think employees are perceiving that person — as well as the importance of the meeting?
Employees interpret leaders using their phone and not paying attention to what’s being said (even if they say they are) as not caring — and if they don’t care, why should their employees? It’s a poor move for morale, and it’s setting a terrible example as a leader. Plus, the person speaking or presenting likely feel pretty lousy when his or her manager or even the CEO is doing other things rather than listening to this really important thing that affects the organization.
Not a hard-and-fast rule
There are of course exceptions for any employee — your wife’s about to go into labor at any moment; you are on deadline for a project and are expecting a call or e-mail that you must respond to right away; you’re attending to an emergency work or personal situation. I get it — it happens to everyone, and that’s why I’m not necessarily saying we should have a hard and fast rule of “No phones, no exceptions.” Not at all.
There are times when using phones can even benefit a meeting; you may be able to answer a question instantly with a quick Internet search and move on to the next item in the agenda, or e-mail someone not in the meeting and get a quick answer back that you can share with others present. Or, you may want to jot info into your phone pertinent to the meeting.
What I am saying is that there are times that using one’s phone can be more detrimental than putting it aside — and we must discern between the two.
Surviving in a technological world
There was a time (you may have to strain to remember) when we didn’t have smart phones or PDAs. There was a time when people had to leave others a message on (shudder) an answering machine. And e-mail — what was that? While technology has made communication in the workplace a million times easier in many ways, it has also made it harder to draw a line where our technological communication must end and our human interaction must begin. It’s far too easy to do and not to think — but by not thinking, we’re doing a disservice to employees. And, as an article on ComputerWorld points out, we may not be as productive as we think while multitasking on these devices; by discussing something off-topic on your phone, you may be giving half your attention to two places but ultimately accomplishing less.
Some technology power users, however, say that it’s impossible — or at least not smart — to fail to answer work-related messages in real-time. Business happens so fast that if you don’t stop to answer, you might miss something important.
Then again, life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it. (Thanks Ferris.)
What do you think about phones at meetings — and is your workplace culture for or against it?