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Turn Off that Phone!

Device-free meeting trends

By I.J. Schecter

Of all people, meeting planners know that nothing replaces real, live human interaction. But anyone who has ridden the subway recently, spent time in Starbucks or watched any group of teenagers for more than ten minutes also knows that a prevalent and insidious enemy is threaten­ing this interaction: the smartphone. Sure, these devices help people stay connected—at least electronically. But they’re also highly addictive, seri­ously distracting and a potential menace to collaboration and productivity.

Performers such as Jack White, Alicia Keys and Chris Rock have banned mobile phones at their shows. Popular author and speaker Simon Sinek has encouraged a no-phones meetings approach. Now, some organiza­tional leaders are joining the phone-ban movement, too. Why? Because phones aren’t just an innocent distraction; they’re starting to prove a value-drain to business. A recent survey from CareerBuilder suggests that, among productivity killers in today’s workplaces, smartphones top the list.

Of course, encouraging people to detach from their phones today might seem challenging at best, radical at worst. So how do you sell phone-free meetings? Here are five strategies:

UP THE FUN FACTOR.
Jolt people out of their electronic FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) paralysis and involve them on the dynamic human level. Tell a joke. Share a relevant personal story. Show a Dilbert cartoon. Play music. Get their attention up here, not down there.

ENCOURAGE OTHER MEANS OF PHYSICAL ENGAGEMENT.
The physical attachment to our phones is part of the mental dependency. Bring squishy balls, pencils with rubber-tassled erasers, markers, flipcharts—tactile objects that can help engage them in ways other than tapping icons.

DON’T ALLOW SUBSTITUTES.
No phones also means no laptops and no smartwatches. Issue a firm guiding edict: If you’re at the meeting, you’re at the meeting. Invite only those who truly need to be there, making it easier for them to meet this expectation.

HAVE EXCEPTIONS.
Parents want to be reachable in case something happens at school. Fair enough. Ask them to assign the school’s number a specific ring­tone, so they don’t answer every other call, too.

PROVIDE RATIONALE.
A rule without a reason feels draconian. Banning phones may seem like you’re just flexing your authoritarian muscles. E-mail everyone explaining how much you value their knowledge and insight, and that you feel these are being compromised by the collective dependence on phones. Make it lighthearted—tell them you forget what half of them look like because everyone spends meetings looking down. If people understand you’re making the request because you value what they bring to the table, they’ll be more likely to accept it.

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