“They are neither listening nor contributing – they are just playing with their phones!” This complaint did not come from a school teacher, but from a top-level executive at a Fortune 500 firm who attended one of our communication courses.
15 years ago a boring meeting was full of long and uncomfortable silences. Today, you hardly notice the lack of ideas. The comfortable clicking of keyboards can make us forget when the meeting is a complete time-waster.
Here is how smart phones can make your meetings more stupid.
Intelligent gadgets such as smart phones and tablets were invented to enable access to information anywhere, and thus save time. Indeed, they can be extremely helpful to utilize ‘dead time’ such as queueing or transport time. If you are as smart as your phone, you can finish most of your emailing before you get to the office – leaving more time to innovate, solve problems and create value. (In other words do real work.)
But most power tools can be used for evil purposes. The virtual reality created by advanced electronics can provide a great escape from situations that in fact would need your attention.
Before smart phones, people were annoyed with boring meetings (even short ones) and tried to put the discussion back on track so that they don’t waste time. Today, boring and unproductive meetings are tolerated because people can browse or mail. People sitting in a pointless meeting and sending mails damage efficiency in two ways. First, they work in an unproductive environment: they would be better off mailing in their office. Second, they perpetuate the wastefulness of the meeting: as long as they are busy with other things, the meeting will stay pointless. The most ironic part is that colleagues who complain of boring meetings are usually the ones clicking away, using time assigned for decision-making and team effort.
As you may have guessed, boring meetings are not okay. But opening your laptop or tablet is not a way to make them more productive. If one can afford to do so, he probably should not be in the meeting at all.
Tolerating low meeting efficiency because participants have something to play with is a bad habit that can be reversed for the sake of shorter and more productive meetings. Here are a few practical tips how:
- Prepare and make others prepare. One of the frequent excuses for opening laptops is last-minute preparation. Preparation should not happen at the meeting (just like homework should not be done in class). Make sure to send out concise preparation materials focused on results, and make sure people read them.
- Use transparency. Yes, sometimes you will need computers to review materials and make decisions. Use only one or two machines at the meeting and hook them up to a screen or turn them towards everyone. All other computers should be stowed away.
- Manage time better. Wasteful meetings prevail if there is no consequence to time-waste. Efficient meetings are short and focused. Of course, if you want to improve your meetings you need to allow for a transition. Schedule short meetings (just enough for relevant decisions assuming good preparation). Close on time. If there is no result, give limited time for preparation (1 to 24 hours) and schedule another meeting.
Ultimately, people will use technology to escape boring situations. This is great when you are at an airport lounge or the dentist’s waiting room, but your meetings should not be ‘dead time’. Several people in a meeting room takes up precious resources each minute. Make sure you use them wisely.