In a recent meeting, I looked around the table and noticed many of the attendees typing on laptops or thumbing through emails on a Smart Phone. The thought crossed my mind wether these people where diligent multi-taskers’ dedicated to productivity or whether they simply had nothing to contribute to the topic at hand. Perhaps the organizer of the meeting had invited them and they had simply came out of either politeness or a sense of obligation due to the organizers rank on the company org chart. Perhaps they really did need to be there and where totally missing critical information about the current topic as they dazed into glowing LCD screens. Regardless, conducting a meaningful meeting with a room full of folks armed with digital distractions can be a daunting task. The easiest way to overcome digital distractions is to simply ban them from the meeting room. No laptops allowed, no checking email on smart phones, all phone ringers set to vibrate. If this is not possible however, here are a few tricks of the trade that may help minimize digital distraction.
Make sure follow-up items don’t become immediate tasks
When access is immediate though laptops, it becomes easy to let items tagged for follow-up become immediate action items. For example, someone may be assigned a task of sending someone else a copy of a system configuration as a follow up item. The assigned team member immediately jumps on and starts trying to grab the configuration. Problems occur when a small issue arises getting the configuration, the team member whispers to a colleague sitting next to him and they both start working on the issue. Before you know it, you have two separate streams of work and thought going on. Explicitly state which items are follow-up items and inform attendees not to work on these items now while the meeting is still focusing on the task at hand.
Let someone else "drive"
It is common for work to get done during meetings with one person projecting up a spreadsheet, word document or Visio diagram, filling in content with the input of meeting attendees. It is also common for the organizer or the most senior person at the meeting to "drive" the work by being the one projecting up the document and typing in the content. I have found it useful to let someone drive during working sessions. You will often know who the folks are most likely to be distracted by working on side items during meetings, let them drive. By having your most easily digitally distracted team members project heir desktops on the screen while work is getting done you can help them and the meeting stay on task.
Call people out
I often get to the end of a meeting or even a section of the meeting, turn to the person who I have noticed working on other tasks during the meeting and ask them to summarize for the group what we have just covered. This is not meant to embarrass anyone and I never push it if the person obviously does not have an answer. It is an effective tool if used consistently as team members will come to expect this and will be more likely to at least home in enough on the current discussion to be able to articulate the current tasks in a short summary.
Have an agenda and roll for everyone
This point is more of a general meeting principal than it is a way to overcome digital distractions. You will find though that if you follow this consistently, people will likely start to see your meetings (and even the fact that you are calling a meeting) as more relevant. Know who really needs to be there and only invite people who will play an active role in the task the meeting is meant to accomplish. Be clear at the start of the meeting why everyone is there, what you want from everyone during the meeting and what the end goal for the meeting is. Foster cooperation and interaction to keep people from falling into a digital distraction.