Ban Phones in Meetings? You’re Kidding, Right?


I’m reading this dopy article about phone etiquette in meetings and the only thing I can think of is that I can’t believe business schools do research on this stuff. Don’t these people have better things to do?

After two studies of more than 500 people the researchers concluded the following about mobile phone use in meetings:

- Men and younger people are more tolerant of the practice.

- Everyone thought reading messages was more appropriate than writing messages.

- Managers should set guidelines to avoid irritating people.

Well thank you Captain Obvious. Besides, the study was all about “perceptions of civility.” We wouldn’t want men offending women or Millennials annoying Boomers in corporate America, now would we? Sheesh, how politically correct can you get?

Call me crazy, but I would have been a lot more interested in a study about the impact of people using phones and computers in meetings on performance and productivity. Do meetings take longer to accomplish less? Do teams make poorer decisions? That might actually have delivered some value.

Then again, maybe not. In my experience – and God knows I’ve spent years of my life sitting in meetings – if I had to come up with a hard and fast answer to whether it’s good or bad to have people working on their phones or PCs in meetings, I’d have to say “it depends.” Sorry folks, that’s the best I can do on short notice.

Seriously, it’s true. It does depend. The problem is you don’t know the relative importance of what an individual is doing on his gadget versus what’s going on in the meeting. It can cut both ways.

I’ve run strategic off-sites with executive management teams where I had to lay down and occasionally enforce strict guidelines prohibiting open phones and computers except during breaks. I felt like a flight attendant on takeoff and landing, “The CEO will inform you when it’s safe to use approved electronic devices.”

On the other hand, I’ve been in lots of daylong business and operations reviews that covered so much ground that everybody and his brother had to be there. Half the people in the room were perfectly fine working online and just tuning in for the good parts that were up their alley. And that was fine.

While those are extreme ends of the spectrum, let me tell you, there’s every kind of situation you can think of in between. And there are other factors besides the type of meeting that come into play, as well. Culture is definitely a factor. What works for one team or company may not go over so well at another. One size does not fit all.

That said, if it was my company culture, I could probably come up with a few guidelines that are flexible enough to apply across the board without losing sight of the big picture:

Whoever is running the meeting sets the ground rules. Just be aware that being unreasonably dictatorial might result in a meeting mutiny. That’s especially true in Silicon Valley where cultures tend toward the eclectic or eccentric.

Certain priorities trump everything. There’s no sense losing a big account or delaying a product launch because a critical issue wasn’t dealt with in real time. Also I defy anyone to tell Larry Ellison or Mark Zuckerberg to put his phone away during a meeting. Not going to happen.

Respect each other. The example I’ve always set is I don’t take calls or interruptions during one-on-one meetings except in rare cases. To me that’s just common courtesy. Likewise, if you’re right smack in the middle of a dialog during any meeting, don’t take a call or start texting someone. That’s just common sense.

Honestly, those are the only guidelines I can come up with. One thing’s for sure. I couldn’t care less about gender and generational stereotypes everyone seems so fixated on these days. The one French expression I’ve always loved is, “vive la difference” although I see it in perhaps a broader sense than it was originally intended. We’re all individuals, n’est pas?

Related: Tech Etiquette for a Gadget-Crazed World