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I'm fortunate in that neither of the two sets of board meetings I attend on a regular basis -- bimonthly meetings for my alumni association and quarterly meetings for a nonprofit agency -- prompt me to bury myself in a phone or laptop computer.

Apparently, these electronic devices have become a problem at meetings ... much more of a problem than doodling faces, eyes, monsters and geometric designs ever presented.

They've become enough of a problem to spur at least one online story/commentary, namely, "Should laptops and phones be banned from meetings?" by Kathryn Vasel of CNN Business.

I suspect laptops and phones were first taken to meetings for the purpose of note-taking ... but this noble purpose slid into the abyss of Trying to Meet Deadlines, as Vasel's story indicates, or worse: furtive playing of Solitaire, Angry Birds or Fortnite.

Adrian Ward, an assistant professor in the marketing department at the University of Texas at Austin, says the very presence of a cellphone at a meeting is a harbinger of evil and doom. Er, well, distraction. "The process of tuning it out sucks up our cognitive resources to try and pay attention to something else," he's quoted. "We learn better without technology."

Wow. If so much as one person brings a cellphone to a meeting, not only is that person not fully engaged; nobody else is either. They're spending too much brainpower trying to overlook the fact that this co-worker brought his phone ... and dang it, they wish they'd brought theirs too!

Some companies are saying no the electronics in staff meetings, Vasel goes on, writing that "the idea is that if people aren't distracted, meetings will become shorter, more efficient and increase collaboration."

She mentions that employees at Skift, a business media firm, are not allowed to schlep their electronics to staff meetings. CEO Rafat Ali offers this reason: "When people are staring at their laptops, or worse, their phones ... it seems disrespectful and it can prevent a quick finish of the meeting." Electronics users are subject to make a meeting longer by asking for questions to be repeated or bringing up things that have already been discussed.

So I guess it's back to old-school, electronics-free meetings where a couple of argumentative or endless-question-asking people hijack the meeting and prolong it anyway? Well, not for Skift. They're smart enough to limit team meetings to 25 minutes, and employees are asked to avoid more than one hour of meetings a day.

Maybe Skift and United Shore, a mortgage company also mentioned by Vasel as outlawing electronics at meetings, are on to something.

I would offer a few suggestions to foster real face time and unfettered communication in the fine tradition of those child psychologists who said not to say "no" to your children but rather, offer positive alternatives instead:

• Food. Have a nice short reception before the meeting, with refreshments -- maybe even a water cooler! -- and mingling time. Attendees might be less inclined to bury their noses in their laptops when they've just vented to their associates about leaky roofs, swapped suggestions on where to buy work clothes or, well, gossiped about folks in other departments.

• Icebreaker games. Get everybody to play (borrowing some online suggestions) 20 questions. Truth or Lie. The Guessing Game. Spin the -- well, scratch that last one.

• Door prizes. Excluding the meeting secretary, the person who gives the best summary of the meeting at the end of it will win a gift card, half a day off, a free lunch, the boss' parking spot.

The downsides: It may be harder to distinguish these meetings from baby or bridal showers and they likely will not fit into 25-minute windows. ("Staff meeting! 3 to 5 p.m. Saturday at the Roof Over Your Head Apartments Clubhouse! Look for the brightly colored balloons!")

In all seriousness, yes, it's a decent idea that we all put aside the phones and computers and truly interact with one another. I daresay meetings aren't the only events at which they should be banned. I may not hide behind electronics at those two board meetings, but must confess to having fallen prey to the temptation of ... well ... Facebook and Twitter newsfeed surfing whilst in church.

But I hope doodling won't be outlawed too.

Do pick up that phone or laptop and hit me at:

Style on 10/28/2018

Print Headline: Let's meet about banning electronics in meetings

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