Banning phones in meetings – “present but absent”

by Nov 8, 2018

Why we need to work on banning phones in meetings

Banning phones in meetings is not just a suggestion, it’s a must. Phones are disruptive and a distraction. They should not be in meetings. Just look at their impact.

How many times do you see people looking at phones in their meeting, or placing them in front of them on the desk or table? Or even worse taking calls or responding to messages during a meeting? A lot, right? They are present but absent; there… but not really. Disruption to meetings by smart phone activity is bad for both your bottom line and employees alike. Have you thought about banning phones in meetings, but not taken action? This should convince you that now is the time.

Damage limitation

When people complain about meetings taking too long, a decline in our personal relationships and reduced engagement, look no further than smart phone usage. We succumb to our addiction everywhere, and that includes the workplace when we need to be at our sharpest. We are all part of a corrosive epidemic of device addiction, with almost no known long term consequences to date. Yet preliminary research is suggesting that device addiction impacts our productivity. People being “present but absent” is one of my favourite bug bears. There is nothing worse than being with people who are blatantly disrupting the communication and creativity dynamic of participants. Nowhere is this more obvious that in business meetings.

It only takes a small number of attendees to disturb the smooth process flow of any meeting, which are already notorious as time wasters. As a leader, it is your role to come down hard on the now commonplace trend towards “present but absent”. Sherry Turkle calls this “alone together” in her book of the same name. But it is not just Millennials who are guilty. It is every demographic. A group can’t be effective if any percentage are multitasking, or mentally and intellectually elsewhere. Multitasking is not what it claims to be. Guy Winch, Ph.D, author of Emotional First Aid, says;

“It is actually a case of switching back and forth between tasks really quickly.”

banning phones in meetings

Multitasking myth

Research shows that when anyone switches back and forth between tasks, the flow of their work and thought processes is seriously impacted. There is no such thing as multitasking. It’s doing one task at a time, but in quick succession. If you are engaged in a complex meeting, then the impact will be more significant. This leaves more room for increased error. Research from the University of Sussex shows that people who multitask, perhaps using multiple media devices simultaneously, have lower grey-matter density in a particular region of the brain than those who stick to using one device occasionally.

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Their research also suggests that multitasking can disrupt mental well-being, causing depression and anxiety. The study found a much smaller grey-matter density in the Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC) among participants who used a higher amount of media devices simultaneously. People with lower levels of grey-matter in the ACC show weakness in cognitive control and emotional regulation. This makes them more prone to depression. Researcher Kep Kee Loh says:

“Media multitasking is becoming more prevalent in our lives today. There is increasing concern about its impact on our cognition and social-emotional well-being. Our study was the first to reveal links between media-multitasking and brain structure.”

Thus allowing, and therefore endorsing, a culture of “present but absent” is not only damaging for the well-being of your team, but it is also bad for business. As a leader it’s your responsibility to set the tone. But how are you going to do that?

How to go about banning phones in meetings

1. Establish ground rules

This can be part of a department or company charter about meetings’ etiquette. Establish ground rules. This can be company wide if you are a senior leader, or even just in your section. There can be a sign on the door, in the meeting invitation and stated up front:

“Please turn off your phones: We need everyone’s focused attention”

You have to be direct. People generally don’t respond to innuendo. Any chink will open the door for rule breaking. Make sure alerts are switched off; even vibrate makes a noise and distracts everyone.

2. Walk the talk

Be a role model. Set the tone. Commit to not accessing your phone for the duration of the meeting. Announce your commitment.

3. Phone-drop

Some organisations have phone-drop policies, with a box at the door (outside the meeting) where every one leaves their phone on arrival. Whether you want to implement that is up to you. This has been done in top political circles, from the White House to the Elysée Palace and Number 10.

4. Stay on schedule

If the meeting is scheduled to be one hour, respect that. If there is additional business, re-convene at a later date. Or even better, set separate side meetings for the participants who are directly involved. Remember, we are addicts. People will start to get twitchy if they can’t access their “supply.” They will be more willing to agree to a no-phone policy if there is a time limit to the embargo and then they can start “re-using.”

Do the math

Distractions threaten work productivity. A University of California Irvine study looking at the time it takes to get back in focus following a distraction estimates:

“It takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back to the task.”

Just doing the basic math will tell you what you need to know. Take a meeting of 10 people, lasting one hour, with each checking their phone three times. You will get almost no focused attention out of a single individual at any time, let alone the group as a whole and definitely not all at the same time.

Is it any wonder that meetings are so profoundly unsuccessful? Don’t just think about banning phones in meetings. Do it now!

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