Phone-free connections?

At any well-run business meeting, a smartphone is not only disruptive but also signals that its user is less than fully engaged with the business at hand

The number one reason for not taking your smartphone to a meeting? It's the tool of unfocused outcomes not to mention that doing so is also ill-mannered, discourteous, unproductive and potentially disruptive. Taking an interactive Internet device to a business meeting sends a message that you're prone to be distracted, unfocused, bored, addicted or insensitive. Moreover, packing a smartphone does not make you look smarter or hip—nor even tech-savvy. It's an admission that you're preparing yourself to not fully be in attendance and need a “hard, smooth object to help ease your discomfort”—the same description for what babies need in a teething ring. 

And please don't tell me in meetings you shut off your phone or put it in airplane mode. It's still in your pocket, and you're within a moment's reach to the all texts, tweets and instagrams waiting for you. Its proximity is interrupting the indispensable “after-meeting reconsiderations” and soundless next-step visualizations that make good meetings into great liftoffs to new creativity. It's calling your name and rerouting your thinking even when it's turned off.

Why am I so opposed to smartphones at meetings? Properly conducted meetings—formal or informal, lunch or dinner—number among the most effective business tools at our disposal. The rules are simple but unforgiving. Be on time, participate, but don't dominate. Keep your mind creative and open. Don't derail. Focus, focus, focus! 

When you take a smartphone to a meeting and use it to check email or covertly send links to friends, you announce that you think the meeting is a waste of time and that you have no interest in the opinions of your colleagues. If that's really how you feel, you should excuse yourself, return to your office and start looking for a job that will fully engage you. Because you might not be in your present situation for too long.

Don't believe it? According to a survey conducted by researchers at the Marshall School of Business and at Howard University, 76% of working professionals making more than $30K a year disapproved of people who merely look at texts or emails during meetings—not to mention those who write messages or answer calls. The higher the person's salary, the likelier respondents were to disapprove of smartphone use in meetings. 

Smartphones are not just out of place at formal meetings, either. One of five in the survey disapproved of using them during business lunches. In other words, imagine you're at a posh restaurant with five colleagues or clients. Simply taking your phone out will likely offend or annoy at least one of your lunch partners. Who wouldn't be insulted by a reminder that you have other priorities?

If you find you are not in agreement, I'd guess you're under 30. In the Marshall survey, around 60% of workers under 30 thought using a smartphone at a meeting was acceptable. If your boss and his or her boss and your clients are all that young, maybe you're safe—unless of course they're among the 40% who disagree. And consider this: Nowhere in the survey was there evidence that anyone admires smartphone use in group situations. At business meetings, on any level, you're expected to bring your brains—not a 21st-century pacifier. 

Give it a rest. The phone can wait.


Sander A. Flaum, MBA, is principal, Flaum Navigators, and executive-in-residence and chairman, Fordham Leadership Forum, Fordham University Graduate School of Business Administration.

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