I can’t tell you how many meetings I have been in where most if not all participants have their laptops open and are actively using them. At best (just sometimes) people are recording notes, at worst they are physically (or virtually) present but mentally and electronically somewhere else; in their email, Facebook, twitter or who knows where on-line space. They are certainly not giving the meeting or other participants their full attention. Even for those with the best intentions (taking notes), there is that irresistible temptation to hastily read an incoming email, respond to an instant message, or even perhaps adjust a presentation they are about to make. And of course it is not just Laptops, its tablets, and smartphones. When you ask someone who hasn’t been paying attention for their opinion, or a question, all too often you need to repeat the point, repeat a summary (which may not be a bad thing), or just simply move on without their input. What impact does this have on the quality of a meeting?
I feel for the person presenting or sharing in such circumstances, I’m sure they sense the lack of attention, I wonder why they continue without challenging the participants, perhaps the participants are more senior, perhaps they don’t want too much attention in the first place, or perhaps they don’t want to call out the very behaviour they exhibit themselves. Once they have completed their presentation, answered one or two questions they can mentally leave the meeting and return to their inbox.
I’m old enough to remember meetings before Laptops/tablets/smartphones – smoking in meetings was still allowed! I’m sure in those meetings people didn’t always give their full attention either, perhaps thinking about the next meeting, their presentation, what to cook for dinner, the weekend, whatever, but apart from the occasional yellow sticky being passed, participants were not being continuously interrupted and being taken mentally out of the meeting. Meetings were a time when you interacted, had a dialog with people at the same time (physically or virtually), not with the rest of the world!
For me it comes down to the purpose, value and importance of the outcome of a meeting. If there really isn’t any, people instinctively know this; people may as well spend the time mentally absent or even better physically.