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Hat rack for devices: don't use devices in meetings

The first thing Don Draper does when he gets to his office is give his busty secretary a suggestive wink. The second thing he does is take off his fedora. Finally, depending on the severity of the previous night, he completes his morning routine with a stiff drink.

What can we learn from Don’s habits? First, that scotch and submissive secretaries always equal drama. But what of that fedora? There’s a lesson there too.

As any Mad Men fan knows, it was once popular for men to wear hats everywhere they went — except, that is, when they stepped indoors. When a gentleman went inside, he removed his hat and placed it on the nearest rack. It was a required social norm, a sign you were ready for business.

Though hats have long gone out of fashion, the custom should guide how we adapt to the increasing pervasiveness of personal technology. It’s high time we started doing with our digital devices what well-mannered men did with their fedoras. We need a digital hat rack to prevent people from actively using devices in meetings.

It seems that whenever people meet in person these days, they do so while separating their attention between the people in the room and the devices in their hands. Somehow, it has become socially acceptable to digitally masturbate in each other’s company. You might say, “but I’m taking notes or responding to an important request!”  No you’re not, you are digitally dicking around.

Bad Habits

Trouble is, we’ve become societally hooked to using our devices at all the wrong times. To illustrate how this works and to make the parallel clear, let’s again look at our friend Don. At first, Don drinks “to take the edge off.” Booze is the solution to ease his worried mind and perhaps conscience. As with all bad habits, over time, the solution becomes the problem. Under the influence, Don makes increasingly poor decisions in his professional and personal life. To escape the stress of the real world, Don continues to imbibe, and the cycle of self-destruction continues. This makes for great television, but in the real world, it’s not pretty.

Don’s path offers lessons about why we can’t stop our technological indiscretions and why we’ll never be able to kick the habit. The real reason we use our phones, tablets, and laptops in meetings is to escape our reality, much as Don does because reality is uncomfortable. Meetings can be tense, socially uncomfortable, and very often, exceedingly boring. Meetings are hothouses of discomfort that any rational person would want to escape. Our technology gives us the perfect way to be there, but not.

The Solution is the Problem

Unfortunately, by mentally teleporting through our devices, we make things worse. Like alcohol to a drunk, the solution becomes the problem. Sherry Turkle, an expert on the psychological effects of technology. observed in her book, Alone Together, “students whose laptops are open in class do not do as well as others.” It is reasonable to assume that digital distractions produce similar negative results in the boardroom. As numerous studies have demonstrated, we are terrible at multitasking. Our brains are awful at absorbing information when we’re not paying close attention.

Under the guise of getting things done, we play ping-pong with our messages, sometimes to people in the same room. Of course, this only generates more emails, not better ideas. Furthermore, watching others use their devices escalates an arms race of perceived productivity. People look busy, even if they are just checking Facebook. The impression that someone else is being productive while you’re not, increases our stress levels as we consider our flooded inboxes.

Most corrosive however, is the fact that less attention means worse outcomes. When people use their devices during meetings, even just for a quick sec, they rejoin the conversation aware that they may have missed something while they were mentally away. They fear revealing that they are not paying attention and tend to shut down. Thus, otherwise valid concerns and bright ideas are never discussed. Their lack of participation only serves to make the meeting less productive, less interesting, and more boring. Conveniently, to escape the discomfort of being not only bored, but also increasingly paranoid, more device usage ensues, and the cycle continues.

Digital Prophylactics

The first step is to admit we have a problem. The machines are winning. We don’t have the will to resist Pinterest when we should be participating or Instagram when we should be interested.

The allure of connectivity is just too seductive, no matter how damaging to our relationships and businesses. As it became more persuasive, technology became increasingly pervasive; entering the places in our lives where we are least likely to assert self-control.

Studies suggest that our brains’ abilities to resist temptation markedly decrease during times of stress and fatigue, both of which are common in the workplace. Unfortunately, the trend toward an increasingly  habit-forming future is inevitable, and unless we develop a new set of norms, things will get worse.

What we need are what I call “digital prophylactics.” Most people think of condoms when they hear the term, but a prophylactic can be any “course of action to prevent disease.” Likewise, new norms are needed to protect us from socially unhealthy behaviors. These are otherwise known as “manners”, but that sounds much too uptight. So instead of grumbling, “Where are your manners? Put that iPhone away!” perhaps we’d do better proclaiming, “Hey, we need some digital prophylactics in here!” That would surely get everyone’s attention.

It’s time for a change. Here’s a proposal for establishing new customs similar to the hat rack of yesteryear:

The Digital Hat Rack

Every conference room should have a charging station just out of everyone’s reach, perhaps on the center table or near the door. When people congregate, they plug in their devices on their way in just as easily as they would have hung up their hats.

Of course, leaving one’s phone at your desk is fine, but just in case someone reflexively picks it up, the charging station gives them a convenient and functional place to leave their devices. Now, instead of sparking the desires of others to use their device as part of the productivity arms race discussed earlier, anyone attempting to use their phone in the meeting will receive cold stares of contempt from their disconnected colleagues.

As for laptops, iPads, or any other digital doodads, they’re off-limits too. Just as the brim of Don’s fedora covers his face, screens create physical obstructions and barriers between people. They should be left outside.

But to save anyone from being the device cop, consider printing this sign and placing it wherever you designate a device-free zone.

OK, You Can Have Just One

Surely there are specific exceptions based on the business, but for the most part, the only things attendees need in a meeting are paper, pen, and perhaps Post-its. I admit that the one thing lost in a no-device meeting is the ability to record and quickly distribute notes and action items.

However, I’m often surprised by how few of my clients record meeting minutes despite everyone in the room being on a keyboard. Perhaps people assume sending notes is unnecessary with everyone busily typing. But of course, it’s a facade and all the more reason that recording and distributing notes is a good company habit.

At the start of each meeting, designate a note-taker who utilizes the one permitted machine in the room. Project the notes on a screen to ensure everyone’s contributions are properly recorded. It’s then the note-taker’s role to distribute the meeting minutes afterward.

Worth a Try

Perhaps you’re getting squeamish about saying bye-bye to our digital pacifiers. That’s ok; start slow. Perhaps ask a few colleagues if they’re willing to give the idea a try? Start with one work week, just five days, and see how it goes. At least use this article to start a conversation. Forward it around. Here, I’ve even pre-written a tweet at this link (assuming that is, you are not in a meeting right now.)

I should mention that I’m no advocate for superfluous meetings. I find organizations generally have far too many of them. However, if a topic is important enough to require participants to be physically present, let’s ensure everyone is really there, in both body and mind.

Technology is evolving much faster than our ability to adopt new cultural norms. Devices have infiltrated every facet of our lives and have not given us time to adapt. It’s time to become aware of the cost of our new digital habits and gain control over them, or we will soon discover they have control over us.

Follow Nir on Twitter @nireyal

Photo credit: BrettRed for