Put the Phone Away & Have Some Real Conversations

Mobile phones are great tools that can be a constructive force in improving society on many levels. Mobile phones are also a problem. Our inability to sit with any form of silence or to spend any amount of time without distraction seems to have been magnified by always having our phones, if not in our hands, only an arm’s length away. Let me focus, though, on the impact mobile phones have on a mainstay of many businesses: meetings.

I’m sure we have all experienced meetings where attendees throughout the meeting keep checking their phones. I’ve been frustrated by people doing this and been the one who has frustrated others.  Leaving aside the thought that most meetings in businesses are inefficient, I want to talk about the impact phones most likely have on your meetings and your business.

Let’s set the stage: you have called a meeting. Time was spent deciding who needs to be at the meeting and checking everyone’s schedule to find a day and time that works. The purpose of the meeting is so that you can get everyone’s input on a topic that is important to your company. Now everyone shows up and takes their seats and establishes a convenient spot for their phone. As the meeting goes along, various attendees periodically check their phones — some will justify the checking with reasons of ‘just checking the time’ or ‘waiting to hear back about something important”.  The meeting wraps up and you feel deep down it was not worth the effort.

Some will argue that there is nothing wrong with such a scenario, that it is just how business is now. Here are the main reasons why I disagree with that position:

  1. Lack of attention — Whenever someone checks their phone, they cannot pay attention to what is happening in the meeting. Either they don’t hear what is being said or they are not contributing. Multitasking is a myth! In almost all cases, our brains can only pay attention to one thing at a time. Switching between tasks also reduces productivity and makes people more error-prone;
  2. Lack of respect — Even just having our phones on the table tells everyone that pretty much everything else is more important than what we are discussing right now. This can be true even if we never check our phones but just leave them sitting on the table. Silencing our phones and then checking them seems to be even worse because it says that I don’t even know if something more important is going on but I’m going to check anyway!

Let’s think about this another way. Imagine the same meeting as above, except this time when each person shows up they bring some coworkers who weren’t invited to the meeting, some clients, their significant other, their kids, family, and friends. Now hold your meeting. During the meeting, instead of checking phones people can turn around and check with their network to see if anything is going on. My guess is we wouldn’t tolerate this (in the weird event anyone managed to make this happen!). Our phones represent this scenario because they represent our ever-present network.

Meetings are about building or deepening relationships between people in a business. They should be about having real discussions that lead to better solutions to the challenges businesses face. They also help create or strengthen understanding, trust, and empathy amongst employees, all of which establishes a stronger, healthier, and more productive business. Research shows that even the presence of mobile phones can hinder this process. Don’t waste your time together, put the phones away.

Additional reading:

The True Cost of Multi-Tasking

Multitasking: Switching Costs

The Uncanny Power of Cell Phones to Disrupt Relationships

The Speed of Trust



Author: Mark Cassar
Great businesses solve problems really well. And solving problems is what physicists do best. Mark has spent the last 20 years helping people understand and solve problems, in business and academia.

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