Last week on the sunny island of Mauritius I encountered a business behaviour that brightened my day. In the boardroom of a powerful, dynastic sugar business a modern courtesy was given a traditional touch. Before the meeting began, an assistant moved around the table and collected everyone’s mobile phone in a dark wooden box. The box was then placed on the sideboard for the whole of the meeting. The message was this: ‘We have come here to meet and talk; to engage with each other, respectfully.’
Before you dismiss this as archaic, let me tell you the boardroom was high tech. With more screens and connectivity than the average Skype or Zoom junkie could handle. But those screens were only activated to display content relevant to the discussion, then politely switched off again afterwards. As a result, a coherent, purposeful and productive meeting ensued.
How very different from most of the modern ‘zombie’ meetings we all attend? Where participants are there in body, but not mind. Where the need to ‘do emails’ is an excuse for partial engagement. Where the lack of mutual respect is palpable. Where consensus is hard to achieve, except when it defines the time the meeting ends and attendees can slam shut their computer lids and shuffle off to another limbo setting.
I well remember the first time I saw an iPad in a meeting. It was in a bank, obviously), and the senior executives were simply delighted to be tapping away on their new toys. We even had demonstrations of how the clever little soft covers could roll up to form display stands. I don’t think that all the bankers present could actually work the devices properly but, my goodness, it looked clever.
But if we had watched more closely, we would have discerned the seeds of disengagement. The one application they could all work was the calendar, so they amused themselves making minute adjustments to their own and others’ working week. Inviting, rescheduling and canceling. Tap, tap, tap … ‘sorry, I just missed your last point.’
Now we have a bigger problem. Level One Managers have discovered the disadvantages of being ‘elsewhere’ during a physical meeting – that’s why they carry notebooks instead. But the zombie virus has now spread to Levels Two and Three. Today it’s the norm to enter a business meeting and erect your lid. In much the same way that you might erect a modesty screen when changing on a crowded beach. It says: ‘My screen is up, I’m busy multi-tasking’.
You see, most people at this level are trying not to be singled out, or asked a question. In the old days they carried spiral notebooks and biros, and assiduously wrote down every word spoken by others. Not to create a record, or to minute action points, but to look busy. Too busy to be called out.
Well done, Technology, for consolidating our culture of unproductive meetings.