Should we ban phones in meetings?

14 February 2017 -


No one needs to spend more time in meetings. So, if smartphones are just distracting us, should we ban them from the meeting room?

Gihan Perera

We waste countless hours on pointless meetings. Indeed, a survey by Officebroker found that the average UK office worker loses a whole year to meetings throughout their career. And, as Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, founders of digital agency 37 signals, say: “Every minute you avoid spending in a meeting is a minute you can get real work done instead.”

So how can we hold more efficient get-togethers? During a recent GoToMeeting/CMI webinar, I offered a few ideas for the future of meetings. One of the ideas I floated was banning smartphones and laptops from the meeting room. Reactions were mixed – here’s a sample.

Yes, great idea!

“Banning devices ensures 100% focus.”

“Devices are a distraction. Too many people use them as a comfort blanket.”

“Phones should be banned – they’re disrespectful and distracting – but laptops for presentations are virtually essential these days.”

“What you think of people is how you treat them... Ignoring someone talking is demotivating.”

“You are simply being disrespectful.”

No, we need them

“We’re in a technical industry so we need access to drawings, etc.”

“I take notes on my device. Do I want to duplicate effort by making paper notes?!”

“You need them if you’re presenting evidence to support discussion.”

“We have lots happening in real time; devices help us to get the latest intelligence, and we are also trying to go paperless.”

“It could be a meeting about social media, so we need to see how certain content translates to smartphones and laptops.”

“A phone could be needed for emergency purposes – a child taken ill at school, say. Banning phones doesn’t work for people who have commitments outside of work.”

“Laptops can allow problems to be solved in the meeting, preventing delay.”

“Devices allow people to check their availability when future dates are discussed.”

Ban them in specific circumstances

“For organisational or process-driven meetings, yes, ban them. It will remove a distraction. For meetings relying on the creative spark, no, allow devices.”

“In some circumstances, it’s suitable to ban laptops and smartphones to encourage proper human engagement.”

Allow them but with rules about use

“Devices should be used only if their use is related to the meeting, not for checking emails.”

“Sometimes my meetings may include people who have to react immediately to outside events. I usually ask people to leave their phones etc on the table (muted) and, if they need to use them, to excuse themselves appropriately. Most of my group know I expect attention and are respectful enough to oblige without reminders.”

“There is a difference between checking for messages on your devices and using them to support the meeting.”

“If meetings are longer than an hour, it’s unfair on people to ban devices due to their other duties. If a meeting is an hour or less, there’s a good chance that people will be fully devoted to the meeting and won’t use devices anyway.”

“Allow them if a consistent approach is applied – ie, all attendees have laptops – and it is established that this is not an opportunity to clear emails.”

“Perhaps there’s a compromise to be made: a partial ban or making a charitable donation if a phone goes off. Computers should be allowed if they are declared at the start.”

“We use devices to facilitate paperless meetings but, yes, there are benefits to banning them – for example, improved concentration.”

4 more radical meeting fixes

  1. Hold walking or standing meetings. Apple co-founder Steve Jobs favoured the walking variety. Many people advocate standing meetings, saying they help to keep sessions brief.
  2. Silent Meetings. In some organisations, there are silent sections in meetings when people can think. As Alexander Kjerulf, founder and chief happiness officer at Danish business Woohoo, puts it: “The purpose of meetings is not to talk – the purpose of meetings is to arrive at ideas, solutions, plans and decisions... Some people can think while they’re talking; most can’t.”
  3. Five-word goals. Before meetings, Christopher Frank, a VP at American Express, asks participants to answer in five words the question: “What exactly are we meeting about?” This ensures everyone is on the same page.
  4. Pre-mortems. You’ve set up a meeting to address a particular issue. You’ve gathered all the key decision- makers. There’s organisational backing for the proposed initiative. What could go wrong? The ‘pre-mortem’ is a group discussion in advance of the session to establish what could potentially scupper your plans, even if you do get total buy-in. This is new- era thinking, designed to anticipate and then head off obstacles to progress.

Gihan Perera is a business futurist, speaker and author

Powered by Professional Manager