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Put the phone down, and something magical might happen in meetings

Lessons in etiquette coming soon from Ontario's classrooms
Ontario classroom
Teacher Kathy Stauch's 9th Grade French-immersion geography class pose for a picture at Lisgar Collegiate Institute in Ottawa.Reuters

By Todd Humber

Anyone remember the “Everything I need to know I learned in kindergarten” essay?

Robert Fulghum penned it in 1990, and it still rings true. A sampling of the timeless lessons:

  • Share everything
  • Play fair
  • Don’t hit people
  • Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody
  • Flush
  • When you go out in the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands and stick together
  • Don’t take things that aren’t yours
  • Take a nap every afternoon

The list goes on. I loved it for the equal parts simplicity and accuracy it carried. And yes, I’ve seen it used (often in a cringeworthy way) in the business world.

Well, schools in Ontario are about to offer up another lesson the corporate world could certainly learn from — a cellphone ban in classrooms.

News broke this morning, via the Canadian Press, that the provincial government is going to ban cellphones in classrooms across Ontario starting in the fall of 2019. Some local boards have already implemented bans, but this would take it a step further.

“When the school day starts off, the phones go off,” a senior government source told CP. “It’s about recognizing that school is a learning environment.”

The provincial Tories gathered feedback on banning devices in class, and reportedly 97 per cent were in favour of restrictions. That’s stunning, almost unheard consensus in this polarized age. I’m not even sure we could get 97 per cent of people to agree murder is necessarily a bad thing.

In the corporate boardrooms, you don’t need to look far to find reasons to mimic the school ban. In every meeting you attend, someone – likely everyone – will at one point surreptitiously lift their device and check it. (Well, they think they’re being sneaky – but trust me, everyone notices what you’re doing.)

Maybe it’s an email. Maybe it’s a text to a loved one. Maybe it’s an irresistible Instagram notification that popped up.

I’m guilty of it, and I’d say there’s roughly a 97 per cent chance (give or take) that you’re guilty of it, too. It really only sends one message — I’m bored and uninterested in what you have to say.

I’ve heard of companies that make staff put their device in phone jail during business hours – only allowing access during breaks and lunches. That’s too draconian.

I’ve seen meetings and training sessions where staff are forced to hand over phones at the start. That seems heavy-handed.

I’ve been in meetings where the first offender is shamed. That is kind of funny, but not really a solution to the problem.

So what are we to do in this age of ubiquitous devices and embarrassingly high amounts of screen time? (I’m shocked every week when my iPhone tells me, with a slight hint of judgment, that my screen time is on the rise. Yet again.)

Maybe we can borrow a page from Fulghum’s book and go back to a simpler, civilized time in the meeting room? What if we tried this:

  • Give your full attention to the speaker and attendees
  • Be fully present and engaged in every meeting
  • Don’t invite someone to a meeting who doesn’t absolutely need to be there
  • If something urgent is happening, let people know in advance that you need to keep an eye on your phone
  • If your mind wanders, bring yourself back – one trick is to focus on your breathing
  • Respect everyone’s time – don’t drone on for the sake of hearing yourself talk.

I’ve also seen (and am also guilty) of another newish trend, which is to cart your laptop in to the meeting. While you can protest all you want that you’re simply taking notes, the lure of the Outlook pop-up when a new message comes in is a siren song that can’t be ignored. Or maybe you can put the finishing touches on that PowerPoint or put in that last Excel calculation when Jeff from accounting starts mumbling things like EBITDA and P&L.

If we borrow a page from the classroom, something shocking might happen. Our meetings might actually be productive – and shorter. That’s something that I’d guess, oh about 97 per cent of us, would really, truly enjoy.

© Copyright Canadian HR Reporter, Thomson Reuters Canada Limited. All rights reserved.

Todd Humber

Todd Humber is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. Follow him on Twitter @ToddHumber
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