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« See you at the Forrester Consumer Forum, Chicago, October 27 and 28 | Main | Don't Screw Up Your Mobile Marketing Opportunity »

October 05, 2009

Dear Groundswell: Is it ok to use mobile devices in a meeting?

by Josh Bernoff

As I continue my Social Netiquette investigations this question comes up over and over again. No less than the New York Times weighed in, but not in any definitive way.

There are countless netiquette sources that say it's rude to take a mobile phone call in a meeting, and you should turn your phone off. But this advice dates to when phones were used to make calls. Now you could be checking email or sports scores, or you could be checking something relevant to the meeting on the Web or taking notes.

I expect this question to generate a lot of divergent opinions, so let me state the obvious -- I know my answer, but I would like to hear yours.

Let's start with four fundamental rules of social netiquette:

  1. The golden rule. If the roles were reversed, would you be happy? If not, don't do it. (Remember this from kindergarten?)
  2. Don't deceive and don't lie. If you get caught, you'll be sorry, since you're destroying trust. This is rarely worth it.
  3. Balance your own needs with those of others. You are important, but not the most important. If your boss needs your help -- or your staff does -- how will you balance those needs with yours?
  4. Your habits are your own problem. If you have a drinking problem, that doesn't mean you can whip out a bottle in the meeting (unless it's on Mad Men). Same with your compulsive need to check email. If you can't stop, get counseling.

Having internalized these, which of course you all agree with, let's look at the problem at hand. Continuous partial attention is a systemic problem that causes us all challenges, but it needs to be addressed on a case-by-case basis, since I don't believe a single solution works for all meetings.

  • If you are having a one-on-one meeting with anyone, then don't use the mobile device. You need something from each other. So concentrate on each other's needs. Better to get 15 minutes of full attention. Using a mobile phone in such a meeting sends the message "you are not important." (This sounds silly, but I have experienced it, and it sucks.)
  • In any small meeting where you are reasonably expected to participate, it pays to ask permission.
  • For example ("I'm going to look that up on the Web" or "I am checking the agenda" or "I am making a note."). You could also say something at the start of the meeting ("I'll be using this to check the Web sites we're discussing.") If you would feel embarrassed saying "I am going to check my email while you talk" then don't do it. (See Rules 1 to 4.)
  • In a larger meeting, people may not require your full attention. (The sync up meeting with 12 people in the part where they are talking about the stuff that doesn't apply to you.) I don't have a problem with mobile devices used in this way.
  • The person running the meeting has the right to say "please put your mobile devices down, what I have to say now is important." It is useful to follow this with an announcement that is actually important, like "I have just laid off half the staff," or "We are reorganizing and you are about to get a new boss," as opposed to "We are about to get new carpeting."
  • People running meetings have a responsibility to have fewer of them and make them shorter. Count up the hourly compensation of the people in the meeting and the time they are spending. Is it worth that much? Is there another way to accomplish the goal? By Rule 1, if you have fewer meetings, perhaps you can get more attention during those meetings.
  • Don't Twitter during a meeting unless it is a public meeting. Most people have an expectation that the contents of a meeting are confidential. For example, tweets that say "My boss is so boring," "Disney just offered to buy our company for $150 million," and "My company is going to announce a new product next week" will all get you in trouble, even if true.

OK, folks, let fly. I'm interested in where you land on this. And if you say "I do it to, but others should not" then please start your comment with "I am a hypocrite."

[Side note. As I described the state in which you cannot concentrate on one thing since your attention is continuously drawn to other things, my wife Kimberley said "There is a name for that. It is called 'motherhood.' "]


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Dustin Jacobsen

I blogged about this topic recently as well: http://tinyurl.com/b7qcus

In summary, I think it's fine to have a mobile device, but what drives me crazy is notification sounds with every text, email or Twitter update. At least turn off notifications. And when I say off, I mean turn off - not vibrate.

If someone really needs to contact you immediately, have them call.

Email, in most cases, can wait another 30 minutes until you get out of a meeting. I have my phone set to "phone only" 95% of the time and turn off the phone component during important meetings and conferences.

Tsahi Levent-Levi

Can't agree with you more.
It should be part of the curriculum taught to kids on kindergarten :-)

Luciano Palma

Is this just a lack of netiquette (or even basic education since cradle time) or are people using mobile devices as crutches to hide their incapacity to keep up with meeting discussions?

Pat Bannan

I agree with you completely and hope LOTS of people read this post. Tsahi makes a good point of including Social Netiquette as part of the curriculum. I am going to include it in my Eagles Club training this week- thanks!

Susan Main

That's so "on" re: checking in when you use your device when you are with a small group of people. (though I've developed a habit of saying "I'll google that" in work and social settings!)I think back to the 90s, when I worked for an Internet startup and we had big, long meetings with the whole team - programmers, artists, project managers, company leaders, and content writers like me. It would have been great to have my iPhone to follow up my own ideas while people talked about their part that I didn't "get" (i.e. the coding talk). So I just doodled in my notepad... Now people wouldn't have to suffer like that in a meeting; instead they can use their time to catch up online.


Couldn't agree more!!
Start teaching this to your organization now! Same with having a purpose and intended result for the meeting that becomes so boring you want to twitter...

phil gillman

As someone that takes notes almost exclusively digitally (iphone and-or laptop) these days I occasionally find myself having to clarify what I'm doing in meetings. Obviously the temptation exists to jump over and see the new email, but I do my best to only do so when the conversation is in an area not directly relevant or if I'm awaiting an answer to a relevant question.

Yes it happens, but I would encourage more people to get in the habit of taking notes digitally in meetings while working to avoid the email-IM trap... perhaps just quitting those programs whilst in a meeting is the best solution?


Depends on the meeting.

I always keep my iPhone handy in meetings even if I'm taking notes with paper & pen. This is not because I'm anxious about my email; it's there in case I need to send a message to the meeting organizer, leader, or attendees.

I go to many, many meetings that drag on or meander meaninglessly; meetings that I cannot sufficiently influence to a better, more productive process and outcome. In cases where these meetings go off the rails, I will grab my iPhone and check my reader, email, whatever. I do this to signify to the meeting attendees and/or organizers that they are consciously wasting my time.

As a meeting organizer, I stay cognizant of this pitfall and make every effort to keep meetings short, meaningful, and productive. I encourage people to bring their devices: 9 times out of 10, we are finished before they can reach for them.

In terms of netiquette like Twittering during meetings, I believe that all bets are off when the convener selects his or her attendees. If you know me, you know I'm an avid tweeter. If I see I'm being ambushed in a meeting, I'll call for reinforcements via Twitter. Confidentiality needs to be spelled out and agreed upon up front if the meeting's proceedings are sensitive. This is a lot easier in government meetings as most of those end up being "for official use only."

I actually work with a lot of younger folks who are wedded to their mobile devices. They bring them everywhere. And they are able to multitask in such a way using those mobile devices, that their participation in physical events (like meetings) is not impacted negatively. It's not necessarily impacted positively either ("That's so RUDE!"), but I find it interesting and notable that there is this whole new work culture springing up amongst younger employees where multitasking between virtual and physical environs is both possible and acceptable.

Cory O'Connor

I am a hypocrite.

As a professor of Advertising, PR, Marketing, and Social Media, I have a no cell phone/no lap top policy in all my classes. Even Internet Communications. Because I instruct using the Socratic Method I have no tolerance for students surfing the Net or reading e-mails while their classmates contribute to the classroom discussion.

That said, I am usually one of a half dozen or so faculty members who use laptops and iPhones during our weekly faculty meeting.


Now that this is out in the open, I'm sure my karma will catch up with me.

Big time.


As a meeting organizer, it's essential to make sure the meeting has a purpose, an agenda and specified outcomes that way individuals are engaged and not tempted to conduct other activities.

As meeting attendees, we should provide others the courtesy we would want those folks to give us if the roles were reversed.

Mobile devices are wonderful business tools, but aren't an excuse for rudeness.

Tony Law

All the above is good stuff but here's a bit of a contrary point, perhaps specific to those larger meetings.

Some years ago, the team I was in undertook a Belbin Team Roles analysis (http://www.belbin.com/). I came out as a "Plant", which sounded rather discouraging.

Typical Plant behaviour is to detach from a topic and pursue your own thought line (and these days that might involve surfing or sending a message or two). Then come back "online"; the new thought can be (though not guaranteed!) a really creative way to redirect the effort of the team, to cut through a problem, or just to summarise.

When this was described to me, I recognised it as something I do, which friends and colleagues have commented on.

It does require abstraction from the current topic, but it is still relevant to the purpose. However, from the outside, it can look the same as doing your (unrelated) email. If you've got a Plant in your meeting, be aware!

Rick Quinn

great topic. I always keep my iphone with me and it is always on. I have a rule that my organization and clients respect. If you call my cell phone during normal business hours, i expect it is an emergency and needs to be addressed. I will answer it (assuming I am not already on the phone). I agree with some of the previous comments. put these on silent mode and stick them in your pocket. If someone needs you, they will call you or send a text. don't check your emails during a meeting.

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