Three Reasons I Hate Laptops in Meetings

As someone who has been a professional software developer for quite some time, I often joke that each year I hate technology more and more. I'm not going to "check in" on Foursquare, won't ever use a daily deal, don't do Facebook, and finally deleted my LinkedIn account last year. I'm not swearing off all technology, though — I use Twitter in place of RSS and Strava to track my rides. I believe in the selective application of technology — any tool or service I decide to use must provide some perceivable value.

I like to apply this same philosophy to my professional work environment. Now that the Viget team is spread across three locations, there are tools and services that help us communicate across offices. Having a laptop on-hand is definitely part of our strategy for having an effective distributed workforce. This, too, is a double-edged sword. I've seen instances where having a laptop in a meeting can quickly connect people across offices, allow someone to perform some rapid on-the-spot research, and even be an effective tool in a remote interviewing situation.

However, as useful as this technology can be, I've also witnessed how quickly it can derail an otherwise productive meeting. Here are three reasons why I think laptops can be meeting poison:

It's a Distraction

Yes, there are those dull meeting moments and, especially when you have remote attendees, periods of awkward silence. During those periods, there's a strong temptation to briefly check your email, or send a quick IM, or respond to someone in Campfire, or check Twitter, or …

… you just missed something important. You can't ask her to repeat what she just said. Everyone will know you weren't paying attention. Your attempt to fill that void might have caused you to miss out on some key detail of this new project.

You're Ineffective

Now you've divided your attention between two activities. Despite the myth of multitasking, you're now less effective at both tasks. A meaningful meeting with key participants requires the same focus as responding to a colleague or client via email. Our "addiction to new information" makes that "quick" context switch so attractive that you can't resist it. But it's not quick. Choosing distraction over focus robs others from your valued insight that only your dedicated attention can provide.

It's Just Poor Manners

Maybe I'm in this meeting with you. I can see you sending that IM while I'm asking a question about a core feature in this application. Maybe you just responded to one of my emails while I know you're in a client meeting. In both cases, you've sent the message that others' time is worth less than yours.

What to Do?

Here are a few strategies that I've found to be effective in minimizing my own meeting-time distractions:

  • Peace out — Not all meetings are created equal. If you don't think you're needed in a particular meeting, politely decline the invitation. Already in a meeting that doesn't seem useful? Excuse yourself and suggest an offline follow-up instead.
  • Kick it old school — Grab a notebook and leave the laptop behind. Not only will you remove the IM / Twitter / email distraction, the constraints that it places on your note-taking will force you to capture only the most important information.
  • Close up shop — If you do need to bring your laptop to a meeting, quit the applications you don't need to use. If you're giving a demo of your work, close it when you have finished your presentation.

Are you frustrated by this seemingly recent practice, or do you think I've overstated the negatives and omitted some glaring positives? Let me know.

Patrick is development director in Viget's Boulder, CO, office. He writes clean Ruby code and automates system infrastructure for clients such as Shure and Volunteers of America.

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