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The Key to Bad Meetings: Bring Your Laptop

| Martin Boroson and Carmel Moore

If you, as a leader, are bold enough to force your team to come into the office for in-person meetings—requiring them to get out of their sweatpants, organize child care, brave the weather, and suffer the commute—you better make sure those aren’t bad meetings.

So why are you allowing them to bring their laptops?

On the surface, it makes sense for everyone to have laptops in meetings. The laptop is our primary tool for work. Your people may even need their laptops to do the work of the meeting—to retrieve documents, find information, access shared workspaces. And the laptop is likely to be their preferred way to take notes.

The problem is that when people are using their laptops in a meeting they are, by definition, multitasking. Even if they are doing something work-related, the fact that they are doing it there and then means they are only “sort of” paying attention to what is happening in the meeting, here and now.

But it’s worse than that.

Using a laptop is often a cover for doing something else. The laptop is an irresistible invitation to distraction. It is where we indulge many of our worst addictions (checking the score, watching the dog cam …) And we are available to the whole world.

This means that even though you have gone to great lengths to gather everyone physically in the same room, they are mentally somewhere else. That is surely the sign of a bad meeting, for multitasking is a misnomer: we are not doing two things at once, we are switching rapidly from one thing to another, which is exhausting and diminishes brain function. And when people give inadequate attention, they come up with inadequate solutions.

Consider, too, what it’s like to be the person speaking to that audience of laptops. When you are speaking and no one is looking at you, something in your soul collapses. You are not getting the real-time feedback that comes from eye contact; to make matters worse, the body language that you are seeing suggests disinterest. You may start doubting yourself, the value of your ideas, or whether you are even interesting. You certainly don’t feel heard. And ironically, given that this is a meeting, you don’t feel met.

Meetings like this leave us dispirited. We have invested valuable time to be with people who are critical to our professional success, people who are ostensibly our “team,” people whom we may even care about deeply—without making any connection. Even worse, everyone seems okay with that, as if this were normal human behavior. But there is no sports team or army platoon that would tolerate this level of distraction in their team members: why do we allow it in the office? 

The result of these dispiriting meetings is that instead of giving and getting 100% attention at work, and instead of feeling the thrill of immersion and the joy of connection, we get accustomed to 80% or less. By the end of the day, it’s as if nothing really landed. No real connections were made. Nothing clicked. And while our time was wasted and we got little done, strangely, somehow, we felt busy, and we go home wrecked.  we are distracting ourselves to death.

Perhaps the scourge of burnout at work has less to do with long hours or impossible demands and more to do with the exhaustion, boredom, and even sadness that results when we feel that something was a waste of time. Back in 1985, the sociologist Neil Postman said we are amusing ourselves to death; perhaps now we are distracting ourselves to death.

In our consulting to leaders on the “time culture” of their organization, we find that teaching meetings are the perfect place to start, for it is the leader’s responsibility to give good meetings.

Our recommendations include:

  1. In advance, for each meeting, consider whether laptops are essential.
  2. State the laptop policy clearly in the invitation and again at the start.
  3. Experiment with hosting device-free meetings—particularly when the topic is sensitive or requires creative thinking.

Naturally, following those recommendations will require some preparation. And you should be ready for some pushback. Here are some tips to make it more likely to succeed:

  1. Print all necessary documents.
  2. Provide alternative means for note-taking—it’s astounding what people can do with crayons. (Alternatively, record the meeting and provide a transcript.)
  3. Be clear about your intention for each meeting—the meeting purpose—and what will enable people to stay focused on that. (We call this TimeFraming®.)
  4. If necessary, designate one person as the “laptop person” or “information gatherer.”
  5. Give people dedicated “laptop breaks”—short periods in the meeting when they are allowed to use devices for whatever reason—to input handwritten notes, diarize the next steps, complete relevant research, or just get their fix.
  6. Seek feedback from your team—making the design of productive meetings a shared process of discovery, part of the job of all team members.

As the world continues to experiment with hybrid working, with people still wanting to work from home, and more meetings virtual, leaders must ensure that in-person meetings are worth the time. Our in-person meetings must not be facsimiles of all those attentionally-challenged Zoom calls.

We believe the world has an opportunity now to re-think meetings, to make “face-to-face” mean something again, and to put the “meeting” back in meetings.

Imagine a world where your team members actually looked forward to meetings, because they were confident that meetings would be an opportunity to speak mindfully and listen well, to use their precious time to forge deeper connections, solve problems, and generate exciting opportunities. Because everyone there would truly be there.


At the One Moment Company, we envision a world where life is time well spent, where you feel aligned with time. Discover how our leadership programs and consulting services can empower you and your teams to, finally, find time for what matters most. To learn more, get in touch via this contact form. 

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