Is it OK to be on your smartphone during a meeting?

Tapping out messages while in meetings is commonplace in many industries, writes Dianne Buckner. It might help productivity, but is it polite?
Checking one's phone during meetings is commonplace in many companies, but studies and etiquette experts suggest it's a bad habit that needs dropping. (iStock)

An associate of mine is ranting. 

"I couldn’t believe how many people were looking at their cellphones during the meeting! It’s so rude!"

Please note I’ve removed several expletives from that quote.

OK, I’m no spring chicken, but I found this reaction to be rather old school. 

At meetings I attend here at CBC News, people are constantly looking at their smartphones, often checking for breaking news that could affect the shows and assignments being discussed at the meetings. It’s perfectly OK! It’s the 21st century! Why not use the tools afforded by this wired age?

But this particular professional felt he was justifiably enraged: the purpose of the meeting he’d called was to talk through the critical path for a high-stakes project. It was essential that people pay attention. It wasn’t clear to him whether his colleagues were taking notes on their phones, doing related research, or playing Word Mole.

Welcome to yet another chapter in the social evolution of the species. Now that 85 per cent of Canadians have cellphones, and close to half of those are smartphones that offer all manner of distraction, personal interaction is more and more often in competition with that vast amusement parlour called the Internet. 

I don’t think that has to be a bad thing — but many people do. 

'The cigarettes of this decade'

"Right now, cellphones are the cigarettes of this decade," said Rebecca Hastings in a 2008 article called "Use Proper Cellphone Etiquette at Work." 

We’re into a new decade since Ms. Hastings made that observation, so I decided to consult people via Twitter, to see if feelings have changed. I tweeted the question "Do you care if people are on their smartphones in business meetings?" Seems quite a few people still hate it when someone sparks up a smartphone beside them.

'Yes I care & It's rude. You’re are in that meeting for a purpose. Replying to that email can wait. It not that urgent.'—The GFLiverpool @GLIverpool

I agree that there are times work assignments would be better served by full attention. But smartphones are fabulous devices, putting a world of information literally at our finger tips, and can be used in a legitimate ways in business meetings. And at least one respondent on Twitter agrees with me. 

"I don’t know if it’s realistic to be outraged," says Lee Malleau, senior vice president at the Calgary Economic Development agency. "We live in an age when people tweet and use social media and stay in touch, so sometimes you have to do that while you’re in a meeting. So you’re on your smartphone because it’s become an extension of your brain."

The agency has just instituted a new protocol regarding smartphone usage. Employees are encouraged to not spend time on their phones in meetings — but that rule relaxes if a situation needs to be "monitored" and updates are needed in real time. 

Malleau points out that attitudes towards mobile device usage also depend on the industry in which you work. "You go to Silicon Valley and you"ll see very few people who don’t have a phone in their hand all the time. It’s part of the culture. In other industries it’s not as much a part of the culture."

As I say, here at CBC News smartphones are totally acceptable in meetings. Of course it’s not OK to take a call — people step out of the room if they have to — but doing on-the-spot searches or watching for developments on pertinent news events is fine. It’s the type of monitoring Lee Malleau describes. 

'Being on your phone while in the meeting shows total disrespect for the meeting and others involved.'—Mike @midnightrider98

And nowadays in all kinds of settings, phones are used for note taking and research — as some respondents to my Twitter question commented. Perhaps a couple of those people in my associate’s rage-provoking meeting were actually doing something related to the task at hand. Or not.

"We like to think it’s multi-tasking, but it’s just plain rude," says corporate etiquette expert Louise Fox

"There are some circumstances where it can be forgiven, and sometimes it’s a useful tool — we just have to be mindful of when we use it and how we use it."

Fox cautions anyone glancing at their phone in the company of someone they don’t know well, at the risk of offending them. One tip sheet I read said don’t use your phone as your watch, to check the time, since you may get drawn in to reading emails and even responding at an inappropriate time.

Addiction or 'habit'?

2010 academic study concluded that "addiction" is too strong a word to use to describe people’s attachment to their phones, but it did report that it’s not uncommon for people to develop a "checking habit" — one they found annoying themselves. 

There’s even something called "phantom vibration syndrome" where people mistakenly believe their phone is calling to them. 

So as much as I support responsible use of smartphones in meetings, I also recognize that their hold over us can be too strong, even worrying. There’s a reason the Blackberry was nicknamed the "Crackberry" — and iPhones and Samsung Galaxies are just as compulsion-inducing. 

I suspect it won’t be long before more people start to realize they need to get their smartphone usage under control — and it may indeed be because colleagues have started to complain or even chewed them out — for gazing into the loving glow of their smartphone when they shouldn’t. 


Dianne Buckner has reported on entrepreneurs for two decades. She hosts Dragons' Den on CBC Television and is part of the business news team at CBC News Network.