For better and for worse, the multiplicity of screens is now a fact of modern life. And of modern meetings too. And no harm there: web-connected devices are indispensable tools for recording and sharing ideas.The trouble comes when select meeting participants drop out of the exchange of ideas and slip into the glowing rabbit hole of their screens instead. They might think they’re multi-tasking, but there is unfortunately no such thing. Ask science. Disappearing into screens is a common phenomenon these days, and an unfortunate one where the productivity of meetings is concerned. It drains energy, wastes time when concepts need to be rehashed, and feels unfair for the other people that are actually listening and contributing.
Why is the screen so interesting?
So if it’s a behavior that’s irritating at best, and unfair and distracting at worst, why does it happen so frequently? Let’s have a look at all the probable root causes:
- People need to keep a lookout for urgent things.
- Some people need to be on constant fire watch. That is a part of their job. They need to keep an eye on their emails throughout meetings, and rightly so.
- The meeting is not as important as the other things that are popping up.
- We have to remember that “deadlines” have the word “dead” in them. Everyone is trying to push their work forward, and can’t always afford to be away for long periods of time.
- They’re bored because this part of the meeting isn’t relevant to them.
- In a big check-in meeting for example, listening to the updates of a department that has nothing to do with yours can be mind-numbing. The urge to use that valuable time on something else is tempting.
People are addicted to their phones.The brain gets a little serotonin high-kick whenever a notification pops up, be it a new email, an Instagram like, and most thrillingly, a text message. For the stressed out and serotonin-lacking, technology is a needed solace.
This is a bad meeting. It might fulfill one or many of the meetings sins: no set goals, poor facilitation, loudmouths taking over, lacking air ventilation… It’s no wonder people want to escape through their technology.
How can I make it stop?
Now that you have the root causes in front of you, what on earth do you do about them? There are a handful of different solutions. Honestly, do all of them!
1) Take pauses for checking notifications and emails.
In longer meetings, it’s a good solution to give people time to check out their distractors. This method is approved even by Google Ventures—they’ve made it part of their Design Sprint methodology. Give everyone 5 - 8 minutes at the end of every hour to dig into their screens. They will emerge with a better handle on the status of their projects, and thus with less worry.
2) Set ground rules
Establish what counts as an urgent reason to consult your screen and take your attention away from the discussion at hand. What counts as an emergency and what could reasonably be handled after the meeting? What setting is allowed for phones: vibrate or silent? Should all phones be on the table facing screens-down? Or should they not even be visible?
3) Introduce a safe word
It can be too pointed or awkward to ask for people to stop looking at their phones. Especially calling out one specific person. Introduce a “safe word” that signals the importance of being focused and not distracted by phones. “Screens down” works as a simple expression that everyone understands.
4) Re-evaluate your meeting culture.
You might need to change the way your meetings are run. If attention is lacking or getting diffused, maybe it’s because there is no force driving everyone to the same goal, no compelling enough reason for why everyone has taken time to be in the same room. Have a look at what’s making your meetings painful. Are they too frequently scheduled? Go on too long? Lacking in real content? Too many people in them?
A successful methodology
If you’re looking for a way to cure some of these ills, you can borrow freely from our Meetings methodology. Among the other best practices that make for an effective meeting, it’s vital to:
Have a facilitator
Set an agenda, and stick to it
Actively capture ideas and delegate actions
Leave at the promised time!
You can read about our complete methodology in our 7 keys guide to more efficient meetings:
These 7 Keys help make meetings more agile, purposeful, and productive. And in meetings like that, the pull of the glowing screen suddenly becomes less powerful.