People who ban technology in meetings are solving the wrong problem

There are a chorus of voices in the business press, social media and on the book circuit that call for an outright ban on technology in meetings.

At first glance, this makes complete sense. Smartphones, tablets and laptops are distractions when it comes to the real purpose of meeting – getting work done.


Suffice it to say, people who point at technology and vilify it as the source of poor productivity in meetings have about as much credibility as the anti vaxxer crowd.

Distractions are everywhere

The fact is, the workplace has always had new and distracting technology. There’s absolutely nothing unique about the time we live in – every era that’s conducted business meetings has had something that pulls people’s attention away from the task at hand.

Get over it.

This fascinating graphic shows some of the technology that’s pervaded the modern office and brought “distraction” (some would call this productivity gain) to us all.


Let’s take a peek at some of the distractions (ahem… tools) that have made their way into our meeting rooms over the years:

  • Ballpoint pen (Uh-oh, no end to doodling in meetings. No more running to the pencil sharpener)
  • Overhead Projector
  • Telephone
  • Whiteboards and dry erase markers
  • Computers
  • PDAs (remember those?)
  • Video conferencing

So, at quick glance, there appears to be no shortage of things to keep us occupied while the rest of the team does actual work.

My point? Smartphones and tablets are simply the latest in a long line of innovations we use in the office. The fact that people are making so much noise about them is simply because they’re new AND we haven’t quite figured out how to really assimilate them into our day-to-day work. (That’s up to the millenials, right?)

“The use of technology in a meeting is kinda like jaywalking – there’s a time and a place to do it”

– Jen Sullivan, Managing Director at Charles Schwab.

If technology isn’t to blame for poor attention, then what is?

Take a long, hard look in the mirror.

It’s you.

If you’re the meeting organizer and your attendees are distracted, you’ve probably done a shitty job at making sure everyone’s engaged. You failed long before the meeting ever started.

  • You didn’t engage with stakeholders to understand how best to get them involved, BEFORE the meeting
  • Zero collaboration on the agenda in advance
  • You didn’t call on the introverts or junior members of your team
  • You didn’t create a dynamic environment that people want to be part of
  • You didn’t set any ground rules or set expectations

On the other hand, if you’re an attendee who’s distracted, why are you even in the meeting in the first place? The fact is, you should have declined the meeting invitation OR had a pragmatic discussion with the meeting organizer around your involvement. And, if in fact you’re doing work in the middle of the meeting, you might as well be working from home.

The burden lies with the technology user

Getting back to the effective use of technology in meetings. Do phones, tablets or laptops belong?

There is no right answer.

Some meetings probably shouldn’t have any technology. Think brainstorming. Think discussions. Think strategic planning.

Some meetings are perfect for using technology. Think status meetings. Think project meetings. Think sales meetings. Board meetings.

We’ve spoken to teams that run successful meetings where smartphones and tablets are permitted and an overarching theme became clear: set clear expectations around their use.

“We’re all grown ups here – I trust my team to make good decisions around the use of devices in meetings” says Jen. “But, if we need undivided attention and complete focus, I’ll make that clear from the beginning” she adds. “Anyone can be called upon at any time.”

Here’s to the continued emergence of new tools that make our work lives easier. Whatever they might be.

Published by

Darin Herle

I call Victoria BC home, am a proud father of 2 and husband to 1. Trackmeet co-founder, Cub Scout leader and baseball fan.

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