Cell Phones Ousted From Meetings?

Full name
11 Jan 2022
5 min read

“There should be no cell phones in conference rooms. None.”

That’s the bold statement of author Simon Sinek in a video interview that went viral recently, a video that stirred a public conversation about cultural trends that affect Millennials. In the interview, Sinek posits that phones and the immediate gratification they bring are contrary to establishing true value in business. Instead, he says, small interactions before meetings are where trust is built. But is this one man’s tirade, or based on actual science and organizational behavior? It would appear to be the latter.

Studies show that cell phone presence in meetings produce two types of negative effects. First, the level of relationship between attendees lessens not just with use of the phone (of course), but by its mere presence in the meeting room, according to numerous studies. So even if colleagues chat before the meeting, the level of connection isn’t as strong. One of these studies, reported in Scientific American, details interactions between random pairs of people: “The pairs who conversed with a cell phone in the vicinity reported that their relationship quality was worse.”

The cell phone’s other threat to meetings is distraction. Multitasking has been debunked as productive, so using a phone during a meeting is clearly detrimental. But again, the mere presence of a phone in the room has been shown to diminish concentration. In a study reported on by NYMag, students asked to do challenging mental calculations performed worse when a phone was in the room.

Beyond these effects, bringing phones to meetings — and certainly using them there — can be judged negatively by peers. Pew Center for Research surveyed 3,127 Americans on their habits and attitudes about cell phones. A few data points relate directly to Sinek’s point about meetings:

  • Colleagues generally disapprove of phones in conference rooms: 95% said they consider it generally not OK to use a cell phone during a meeting.
  • The phone can be an excuse not to chat with peers: 53% said they have used the cell phone in public to avoid interactions with others.
  • Millennials are more apt to lean on the phone in meetings: 10% of adults ages 18–29 believe it’s OK to use a phone in a meeting, vs. 2% of those 65+.

In an interview with the Atlantic, Sherry Turkle, a psychologist, professor at MIT and author of Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, summarizes what she considers the bottom line of the Pew survey: “We have many positive ways to describe how we’re using our phones — I take it out and I show you this or that — but when it came to the bottom-line question, ‘What do you think it did to the conversation?,’ 82 percent say it deteriorated the conversation.”

Meanwhile, beware: If you do take out your phone at that meeting, you may be judged. A study by Howard University and University of Southern California researchers asked 554 business people whether it bothered them if colleagues checked their cell phones. Their findings? People are particularly bothered by managers who take calls during meetings, men are nearly twice as likely as women to think it’s okay to check text messages at a business lunch, and even leaving your phone out on the table can be offensive to some people. Interestingly, judging was harshest by those on the West Coast.

It’s all well and good, though, to know cell phones are not additive to meetings. But should they be banned? There are no easy answers.

Even meeting planners grapple with this. According to a study by IMEX America in conjunction with Meeting Professionals International, 40 percent of respondents agreed with the statement: “To maximize attention, delegates should be banned from using personal devices during conference sessions and meetings. They should be told to switch them off and put them away before the meeting starts.”

For smaller internal meetings, what are best practices? Answers run the gamut. Some organizations ban phones from meetings — usually done best by clearly stated policy. Others just ignore bad behavior. Somewhere in between is simply a commitment to building in clearly communicated breaks, so meeting attendees know when they will be able to check notifications.

Judging from the viral reaction to Sinek’s views, he’s tapped a nerve. Will it make a difference at your next meeting?

Bizly is a platform for booking small group meetings on demand at the world’s leading hotels. Browse meeting rooms here.