In the second of two posts inspired by a recent article in the LA Times describing Silicon Valley companies moving to “topless” meetings in which laptops are banned, I try to capture the issues by taking the perspective of a teacher or meeting convener who has looked out over too many groups busily attending to their laptops and cell phones. In the first post, I took the perspective of someone who has endured too many boring, unproductive classes and meetings. It was surprising how easily the two stories could be transposed. What does that mean?

Here is what I imagine goes through the heads of typical teachers and meeting conveners when faced with a room of text messaging, YouTube browsing, Facebook editing, email checking students or employees.

“Look, I don’t mean to be rude and I really do understand how technology has changed our lives, why your laptop is an important tool, and how it can be used to support learning, but if you’re going to sit through this entire meeting with your laptop open, please make sure you:

  • Come to the meeting ready to participate in the scheduled task, discussion, or group activity.
  • Don’t distract anyone, including me with what’s happening on your laptop screen, what’s coming out of your speakers, or your nonverbal responses to that funny story on Web.
  • Don’t ask questions later about what you missed in the meeting, what tasks were assigned to you, or what decisions were made that affect you.

I’ve come to this meeting prepared, I’ve provided you with information and materials ahead of time so that you could prepare yourself, and I’ve made it very clear to you why your participation in this meeting is important for both of us. If you still decide to pay no attention to the meeting activities and check your email instead, then I would ask you to reconsider why you are sitting in this room today. Please don’t insult me by telling me that it’s because you were forced to be here, that you’re a good multi-tasker, or that I just don’t understand technology. If you pretend to “multi-task,” I might not say anything to you, but you should know that you aren’t fooling me.”

“Although I may look like a Luddite who doesn’t come close to matching Solitaire’s level of excitement and I certainly have hosted the occasional boring, unproductive meeting, the truth is that I am trying very hard to engage you and I care very deeply about the work we are all here to accomplish. I am not simply going through the motions and I am not a meeting junky. I see no indication that you’ve prepared for this meeting, that you’re invested in what we’re doing, or that there’s much chance of that changing in the near future. I don’t want to cause a fuss and embarrass you, so I am just going to let you sit there quietly and do whatever it is that you’re doing until the meeting is over. I’m fully capable of conducting this meeting without you and working with those who are interested in participating. If I see some sign that you want to participate, I’ll engage you.”

“You should know that I actually wish things were different. I’m tired of asking you to come to these meetings when you provide so little input. I also appreciate how frustrating it must be for you to leave the meeting feeling that it was such a waste of your time. I would much rather spend the time we have together productively and I’m willing to make a deal with you. I will come to the next meeting fully prepared to engage with you if you promise to:

  • Prepare for our meeting. I can tell immediately when you’re unprepared. Spend some time getting ready for the meeting. Read the meeting materials. Do the homework. If I’ve asked you to do some online discussion before the meeting that would allow us to start our face-to-face work together at a deeper level, then do it. If you aren’t prepared for the meeting, then don’t attend.  
  • Prepare me for our meeting. I’m not a mind reader. If you don’t understand why we’re meeting and what’s expected of you, let me know. Give me some suggestions and feedback. Start participating before the meeting. What do you want to get out of this meeting? What’s the best way to make that happen?
  • Relax about device prohibition. First, I am going to ask you to engage in some activities that will not require a laptop for taking notes and I may even ask you to use a Sharpie, Crayon, or some chalk. Deal with it. Second, set your communication devices to silent or vibrate and don’t worry about incoming calls unless you think they’re really more important than what we’re doing in the meeting. If a potentially important call comes through, don’t answer your phone in the meeting. Ignore it, then politely excuse yourself and call the person back from outside the meeting room. Third, remember that my time is valuable too. If you are not participating in the meeting and have decided that you would rather do something else, don’t distract me or others. Better yet, quitely leave the meeting.
  • Develop your skills. Nothing personal, but your learning/teamwork skills could be better. Becoming a better learner and team member is a matter of continuous improvement. There are all sorts of methods and tools that you can use during meetings to participate effectively. If you need ideas or assistance developing your skills, ask me, your colleagues, or those in your organization who can help you learn. Don’t be afraid to try something new at the next meeting, but please make sure it’s something productive and positive. I don’t so much like the “Devil’s Advocate” method, but if you can use it without deflating the group, go for it. The bottom line is that we have met in this room to work together.

In the grand scheme of things, we have so little time together and it’s so difficult in today’s world to get people to sit down in the same place at the same time. Let’s make the most of it.”

Yours truly,

Ken the Teacher/Convener