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Using Smartphones During Meetings: A Workplace Faux Pas that Needs to Stop?

Man using PDA phone during business meetingA 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?

Amy K. McDonnell

About Amy K. McDonnell

Originally hailing from Ohio, Amy is the editorial manager on the content services team and has been with both CareerBuilder and the city of Chicago for nearly a decade. She writes on a range of recruitment topics on The Hiring Site, striving to bring a dose of clarity and humor to sometimes complicated issues around employee attraction, engagement and retention. When she's not working, Amy spends as much time as possible reading, pretending to be a chef, writing short stories, eating Nutella out of the jar, waiting for CTA buses and trains, going to see her favorite bands live, and spending time with people who inspire and challenge her.
25 comments
Amy Engebretson
Amy Engebretson

Great article! I agree with much of what has been said regarding culture in the workplace, appropriate meeting support, etc. The thing that bothers me is the growing lack of respect of others and use of phones.

If the "boss" takes non-emergency calls while an employee is right there in front of him trying to work out an issue, doesn't that say something about what he thinks of that employee?

Perhaps its simply becoming such a cultural habit to chat wherever you are (sidewalk, cafe, restrooms) that people don't realize how rude and disruptive they are being when they carry the habit into the workplace.

If that is the case, it indicates a bigger cultural problem that is seeping into the workplace.

I would think company meetings are at least as important as the last show seen in the theater or movie house. Bet the smartphones were turned off for that!

Amy Engebretson
Amy Engebretson

Great article! I agree with much of what has been said regarding culture in the workplace, appropriate meeting support, etc. The thing that bothers me is the growing lack of respect of others and use of phones.

If the "boss" takes non-emergency calls while an employee is right there in front of him trying to work out an issue, doesn't that say something about what he thinks of that employee?

Perhaps its simply becoming such a cultural habit to chat wherever you are (sidewalk, cafe, restrooms) that people don't realize how rude and disruptive they are being when they carry the habit into the workplace.

If that is the case, it indicates a bigger cultural problem that is seeping into the workplace.

I would think company meetings are at least as important as the last show seen in the theater or movie house. Bet the smartphones were turned off for that!

Amy Engebretson
Amy Engebretson

Great article! I agree with much of what has been said regarding culture in the workplace, appropriate meeting support, etc. The thing that bothers me is the growing lack of respect of others and use of phones. If the "boss" takes non-emergency calls while an employee is right there in front of him trying to work out an issue, doesn't that say something about what he thinks of that employee? Perhaps its simply becoming such a cultural habit to chat wherever you are (sidewalk, cafe, restrooms) that people don't realize how rude and disruptive they are being when they carry the habit into the workplace. If that is the case, it indicates a bigger cultural problem that is seeping into the workplace. I would think company meetings are at least as important as the last show seen in the theater or movie house. Bet the smartphones were turned off for that!

Lynn Sardonia
Lynn Sardonia

Amy: I think your post is right on target. I work with techies a lot. There are times in meetings when someone is using his/her PDA - but not in support of the meeting. Be courteous and provide uninterrupted attention in a meeting (with exceptions that you noted). Especially during interviews and performance reviews! Leaders must set good examples of when to use PDAs and Social Networking. The ability to LISTEN to others, watch body language and offer support through full engagement is invaluable and helps make one be a great leader.

Lynn Sardonia
Lynn Sardonia

Amy: I think your post is right on target. I work with techies a lot. There are times in meetings when someone is using his/her PDA - but not in support of the meeting. Be courteous and provide uninterrupted attention in a meeting (with exceptions that you noted). Especially during interviews and performance reviews! Leaders must set good examples of when to use PDAs and Social Networking. The ability to LISTEN to others, watch body language and offer support through full engagement is invaluable and helps make one be a great leader.

Lynn Sardonia
Lynn Sardonia

Amy: I think your post is right on target. I work with techies a lot. There are times in meetings when someone is using his/her PDA - but not in support of the meeting. Be courteous and provide uninterrupted attention in a meeting (with exceptions that you noted). Especially during interviews and performance reviews! Leaders must set good examples of when to use PDAs and Social Networking. The ability to LISTEN to others, watch body language and offer support through full engagement is invaluable and helps make one be a great leader.

Graeme Codrington
Graeme Codrington

Thanks for a great article. I do think the answer to the question about tech use in meetings very much depends on the type of meeting you're running. There are some meetings where it actually enhances the outcomes of the meeting, and should be encouraged.

The key is to get group buy-in to what type of meeting it is that you're having.

If you're interested, see a short 6 minute video I recorded on this topic, suggesting that there should be three types of meetings in your company: http://businesssuccess.tv/video/meetings

Graeme Codrington
Graeme Codrington

Thanks for a great article. I do think the answer to the question about tech use in meetings very much depends on the type of meeting you're running. There are some meetings where it actually enhances the outcomes of the meeting, and should be encouraged.

The key is to get group buy-in to what type of meeting it is that you're having.

If you're interested, see a short 6 minute video I recorded on this topic, suggesting that there should be three types of meetings in your company: http://businesssuccess.tv/video/meetings

Graeme Codrington
Graeme Codrington

Thanks for a great article. I do think the answer to the question about tech use in meetings very much depends on the type of meeting you're running. There are some meetings where it actually enhances the outcomes of the meeting, and should be encouraged. The key is to get group buy-in to what type of meeting it is that you're having. If you're interested, see a short 6 minute video I recorded on this topic, suggesting that there should be three types of meetings in your company: http://businesssuccess.tv/video/meetings

Gini Dietrich
Gini Dietrich

Amy, you've very eloquently explained the difference between smartphones detriment and their useful purpose. I completely agree that if a leader is tapping away on their phone while in meetings, it's seen as they don't care. I once interviewed a person who came very highly recommended by people I really respect, but he answered emails while we were talking. I was FLOORED! Granted he wasn't hired and, when he asked for feedback and I told him why, he thought I was being ridiculous. As Tony Hsieh says, hire for values and culture, not skill. That guy definitely would not have fit our culture and he and I would have probably had literal fights over his phone.

Gini Dietrich
Gini Dietrich

Amy, you've very eloquently explained the difference between smartphones detriment and their useful purpose. I completely agree that if a leader is tapping away on their phone while in meetings, it's seen as they don't care. I once interviewed a person who came very highly recommended by people I really respect, but he answered emails while we were talking. I was FLOORED! Granted he wasn't hired and, when he asked for feedback and I told him why, he thought I was being ridiculous. As Tony Hsieh says, hire for values and culture, not skill. That guy definitely would not have fit our culture and he and I would have probably had literal fights over his phone.

Amy Chulik
Amy Chulik

Hi Lynn -- thanks for your comment, and that's exactly the difference, isn't it? Someone who's using their PDA in support of the meeting versus using it for something completely unrelated. I've been surprised by the number of people who have said they've seen people use their phones while in interviews (as Gini mentioned above) or in performance reviews, which is more common than I thought. Totally unacceptable! If we can't give each other our undivided attention in something as important as a potential job offer or discussion about the future of a career, what will we give it for?

And like you said, leaders are the ones who really need to be leading this example and showing employees with their actions that they respect their time and think that what they (or their peers) are saying is valuable.

Amy Chulik
Amy Chulik

Hi Lynn -- thanks for your comment, and that's exactly the difference, isn't it? Someone who's using their PDA in support of the meeting versus using it for something completely unrelated. I've been surprised by the number of people who have said they've seen people use their phones while in interviews (as Gini mentioned above) or in performance reviews, which is more common than I thought. Totally unacceptable! If we can't give each other our undivided attention in something as important as a potential job offer or discussion about the future of a career, what will we give it for?

And like you said, leaders are the ones who really need to be leading this example and showing employees with their actions that they respect their time and think that what they (or their peers) are saying is valuable.

Amy Chulik
Amy Chulik

Hi Lynn -- thanks for your comment, and that's exactly the difference, isn't it? Someone who's using their PDA in support of the meeting versus using it for something completely unrelated. I've been surprised by the number of people who have said they've seen people use their phones while in interviews (as Gini mentioned above) or in performance reviews, which is more common than I thought. Totally unacceptable! If we can't give each other our undivided attention in something as important as a potential job offer or discussion about the future of a career, what will we give it for? And like you said, leaders are the ones who really need to be leading this example and showing employees with their actions that they respect their time and think that what they (or their peers) are saying is valuable.

Amy Chulik
Amy Chulik

Thanks for the comment Francis -- and you're right; I don't think employers have thought the impact of employees using mobile devices through. On one hand, employers want productivity, but lack of work/life balance could actually make employees less productive and more burned out than anything else.

Expectations have to be in line with what works for both the employee and the employer, and have to be communicated out. We wrote about this topic a little while ago if you're interested in reading: http://thehiringsite.careerbuilder.com/2010/08/19/working-on-mobile-devices-during-non-work-hours-the-new-overtime/

The workplace culture is changing as a result of technology -- and we're seeing both good and bad ramifications of that. Issues like smartphones in meetings or expectations of employees to be "on call" at all hours are still somewhat unchartered territory for a lot of companies, but as you said, if no one at a company takes the lead in defining what works for them, it could be creating a bigger issue.

Amy Chulik
Amy Chulik

Thanks for the comment Francis -- and you're right; I don't think employers have thought the impact of employees using mobile devices through. On one hand, employers want productivity, but lack of work/life balance could actually make employees less productive and more burned out than anything else.

Expectations have to be in line with what works for both the employee and the employer, and have to be communicated out. We wrote about this topic a little while ago if you're interested in reading: http://thehiringsite.careerbuilder.com/2010/08/19/working-on-mobile-devices-during-non-work-hours-the-new-overtime/

The workplace culture is changing as a result of technology -- and we're seeing both good and bad ramifications of that. Issues like smartphones in meetings or expectations of employees to be "on call" at all hours are still somewhat unchartered territory for a lot of companies, but as you said, if no one at a company takes the lead in defining what works for them, it could be creating a bigger issue.

Amy Chulik
Amy Chulik

Thanks for the comment Francis -- and you're right; I don't think employers have thought the impact of employees using mobile devices through. On one hand, employers want productivity, but lack of work/life balance could actually make employees less productive and more burned out than anything else. Expectations have to be in line with what works for both the employee and the employer, and have to be communicated out. We wrote about this topic a little while ago if you're interested in reading: http://thehiringsite.careerbuilder.com/2010/08/19/working-on-mobile-devices-during-non-work-hours-the-new-overtime/ The workplace culture is changing as a result of technology -- and we're seeing both good and bad ramifications of that. Issues like smartphones in meetings or expectations of employees to be "on call" at all hours are still somewhat unchartered territory for a lot of companies, but as you said, if no one at a company takes the lead in defining what works for them, it could be creating a bigger issue.

Amy Chulik
Amy Chulik

Hi Graeme -- thanks for reading. I agree that using smartphones in meetings can be beneficial, and while I touched on that briefly in the post, your video brings up some interesting ideas on an entirely different way to approach the issue that I hadn't really thought about.

I think that while it depends on the company culture, defining the type of meeting beforehand and whether phones and other devices will be permitted in that meeting could be a good alternative for some companies. As you said, having that option "C" where computers can be used in the meeting to Skype, etc. with employees not physically present can be vital for companies with multiple locations. Even in a pro-technology meeting, though, I think employees have to have that line of respect. How easy is it to "draw someone in" in a meeting who's been e-mailing until an agenda item comes up that they're involved in, I wonder?

Amy Chulik
Amy Chulik

Hi Graeme -- thanks for reading. I agree that using smartphones in meetings can be beneficial, and while I touched on that briefly in the post, your video brings up some interesting ideas on an entirely different way to approach the issue that I hadn't really thought about. I think that while it depends on the company culture, defining the type of meeting beforehand and whether phones and other devices will be permitted in that meeting could be a good alternative for some companies. As you said, having that option "C" where computers can be used in the meeting to Skype, etc. with employees not physically present can be vital for companies with multiple locations. Even in a pro-technology meeting, though, I think employees have to have that line of respect. How easy is it to "draw someone in" in a meeting who's been e-mailing until an agenda item comes up that they're involved in, I wonder?

Amy Chulik
Amy Chulik

Hi Gini -- thanks for your great comment and also for your thoughts on smartphones in meetings. Also, wow. I can't believe someone vying for a job would not only e-mail during an interview, but also be indignant as to why it's unacceptable to do so. Did you ask him what was so important to respond to during the interview? :)

You make a good point -- while a candidate's skills are obviously a factor, finding someone who fits into the values and culture of an organization is just as, if not more, important in both retention and maintaining the integrity of your culture.

Amy Chulik
Amy Chulik

Hi Gini -- thanks for your great comment and also for your thoughts on smartphones in meetings. Also, wow. I can't believe someone vying for a job would not only e-mail during an interview, but also be indignant as to why it's unacceptable to do so. Did you ask him what was so important to respond to during the interview? :)

You make a good point -- while a candidate's skills are obviously a factor, finding someone who fits into the values and culture of an organization is just as, if not more, important in both retention and maintaining the integrity of your culture.

Amy Chulik
Amy Chulik

Hi Gini -- thanks for your great comment and also for your thoughts on smartphones in meetings. Also, wow. I can't believe someone vying for a job would not only e-mail during an interview, but also be indignant as to why it's unacceptable to do so. Did you ask him what was so important to respond to during the interview? :) You make a good point -- while a candidate's skills are obviously a factor, finding someone who fits into the values and culture of an organization is just as, if not more, important in both retention and maintaining the integrity of your culture.

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