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How to Manage Smartphones at Meetings

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Mobile devices at meetings can be disruptive, but some strategies can help.

Real estate agent Frank Bertolino recently served on a sequestered jury where cell phone use was strictly prohibited. Checking his messages late one afternoon, he learned that he missed out on a $12,000 commission. A client had called that morning wanting to see a house; when Bertolino didn’t return her call, she contacted someone else, who then made the sale.

You might think that Bertolino, who works with Keller Williams Realty in Newburyport, Mass., would be permanently tethered to his mobile phone as a result—but he’s not. “I consider it rude to answer a phone during a meeting with a client,” he says. To avoid temptation, he leaves his phone in the car.

Keeping those addictive devices off your person may be the only way to resist sneaking a quick peek during a meeting. A study by Robert Half Management Resources found that 85 percent of executives say it’s common for professionals to read and respond to email on their mobile devices during business meetings. Add instant messaging, Twitter and other forms of social networking, and personal electronic devices supply a constant stream of distractions during face-to-face confabs. Meanwhile, the people watching the texters, typers and talkers become increasingly irritated with the disruptions.

“Electronic devices are like the smoking of the ’90s,” says Pamela Eyring, president and director of the Protocol School of Washington, a business etiquette training firm that works with diplomats and companies such as Boeing and Louis Vuitton. “Companies are aggravated and losing productivity.”

Some are so exasperated, in fact, that they have started to employ etiquette experts like Eyring to enact formal policies. “They bring me in to teach employees why it’s not a good idea to be texting while your boss is speaking at the podium,” she says.

It seems like that should be obvious, but from the youngest workers on up to those near retirement, everyone is guilty of stealing a glance at their phones when they shouldn’t be. Need to rein it in? Experts agree that no matter what your policy, it will do no good if there’s no buy-in from top brass.

Start At The Top

When the most important people in the meeting room put their phones away, others are inclined to do the same.

“Companies that have the most success with limiting cell phone usage start at the top,” says Josephine Nicholas, corporate etiquette trainer and press agent for Insert Catchy Headlines, a media relations company. She notes that putting a cell phone on the table during a meeting implies that you must be very important. But “if the very important ones put away their devices first, others will follow suit,” she says.

John Hsu, managing partner and cofounder of SurfMerchants, a web development company in Boston, keeps his iPhone in his pocket on vibrate when he is in a meeting. “If it does go off, I will give it a quick check, but unless it’s a member of my family, I almost never respond,” he says. “These days, it’s so rare to get face-to-face time with coworkers or clients or strategic partners that I do everything I can to make that time a priority.”

Hsu hopes that by setting a good example, he will inspire his tech-savvy employees to follow suit. “By and large, everyone…is conscientious about limiting meeting disruptions,” Hsu says, adding that he prefers for people to avoid putting their phones set on vibrate on a hard conference table: The rattle can be more distracting than a ring, not to mention downright deafening for those on the other end of a speaker-phone call.

Set Expectations

Explicit instructions requesting smartphones to be put away—with information on where and when to check for messages—puts everyone on the same page.

Spelling out expectations right at the start of a meeting goes a long way toward avoiding problems, says Jodi R. Smith of Marblehead, Mass.–based Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting. At the beginning of each gathering, she recommends saying something along the lines of, “Thank you so much for taking the time to attend this meeting. So we can best get through this material as quickly as possible, I ask that you take the time now to turn off your electronic devices. If you need to check for a message, please excuse yourself and do so in the hallway. Thank you.”

Nancy Flynn, executive director of the ePolicy Institute and author of The Handbook of Social Media, notes that employers should incorporate smartphone policies into a broader policy governing employees’ personal and business use of mobile devices. Among the rules she suggests: “Require employees to turn off mobile devices during business-related meetings, seminars, conferences, luncheons and any other situation in which a ringing phone or tapping fingers are likely to disrupt proceedings or interrupt a speaker’s or participant’s train of thought.”

It’s not just about the interruption factor either, Flynn continues. “You don’t want employees shooting video via a smartphone during a meeting in which company secrets are discussed, then uploading the video to YouTube or sharing it with a competitor, reporter or other third party.”

Schedule Frequent Breaks

When meeting participants know they will be able to check messages every 45 minutes to an hour, they’re more willing to put their phones away.

If you plan to restrict smartphone usage, make sure you let the attendees know how long they will be offline. “Asking for more than an hour is like climbing Mount Everest,” Nicholas quips. Eyring says that a break every 45 minutes to an hour is sufficient. Real estate agent Bertolino thinks two hours is reasonable.

In addition, if someone at the meeting is expecting a call or other information relevant to the meeting itself, that should be spelled out in advance, so attendees don’t see one person checking a mobile device as permission for everyone to do so.

No matter how reasonable your rules might be, though, there will still be those who are so addicted that they can’t follow them. “There is always someone who thinks he or she is invisible and goes to check their gadget,” Smith notes. How does she handle that kind of etiquette breach? “When I am speaking, I will move over so that I am behind that person. I do not say anything directly to the individual, but my presence lets him or her know that the behavior is unacceptable. This technique is highly effective.”

Hsu knows that the occasional tech interruption is inevitable in his corporate culture, but he probably wished he had confiscated all the smartphones at the door of a recent event. He was giving the keynote at SurfMerchants’ annual user conference when he noticed attendees showing their phones to their neighbors.

He finished up his talk, all the while wondering if some huge news event or national crisis had just broken out. “Sure enough, it was a crisis, but only to us,” he recalls. SurfMerchants’ servers, which Hsu notes very rarely go down, had gone completely offline. “All I could do when opening the second part of the conference was to remark, ‘We always tell public speakers to imagine the audience in their underwear, but today I’ve learned what it’s like to feel like I’m the only one in the room who’s undressed!”

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