Seven Rules for Using Laptops in Meetings

Seven Rules for Using Laptops in Meetings
By Jeff Wuorio

Reprinted with permission from the Microsoft Small Business Center

Not long ago, Frances Altman agreed to present a talk to some of her colleagues. Everyone arrived on time. Unfortunately, at least from her point of view, so did their laptop computers.

"Several people came in and started working on their laptops right through my talk," recalls Altman, public relations specialist at Virginia Commonwealth University. "It was very discourteous — they could hardly be taking notes or listening to you. Next time, I’ll request both phones and computers off."

Altman’s experience isn’t singular. Laptops (and Tablet PCs) are as much an element of business meetings today as any piece of equipment. But rules and protocols for using them are often lacking.

Here, then, are seven suggested guidelines to ensure that laptops contribute to productive meetings rather than to distract and annoy participants.

1. Make sure there’s a point. Few businesspeople would discount the productive oomph that computers can bring to a meeting, no matter if they’re part of a presentation or a means of recording the proceedings. But it’s usually a good idea to discourage someone from using a laptop for something other than the business at hand. "It is impossible to have a productive, interactive meeting with laptops separating the attendees. So meeting participants should leave their laptops in their offices unless they have a reason to have them in the meeting," says Deborah Barrett, a senior lecturer at the Jones Graduate School of Management at Rice University. (That is, unless, of course, the meeting requires that users bring their laptops to follow along.)

2. Designate a laptop. Again, laptops can be integral to the business of a meeting. If a computer needs to be part of the proceedings, consider putting one person in charge of computer duties. If notes need to be taken, that one person can look after the chore, then share them with the other attendees once the meeting is completed. Likewise, if presentations such as PowerPoint are necessary, there’s really no necessity for more than one computer.

"Designating someone as the official recorder so that one person records the proceedings on his laptop frees others to mentally engage in the conversation," says Fairfax, Va., consultant Kristin Arnold. "The general rule of thumb is: If you need face-to-face interaction, put the laptops away."

3. Be ready to explain why you’ve brought a laptop. Having a fairly liberal meetings and laptops policy doesn’t preclude good manners. If you bring your machine to a meeting, it’s courteous to let the person in charge know why it’s there, be it for recording purposes or access to pertinent data. That can head off sour feelings if someone is mysteriously hunkered down over a laptop for no apparent purpose.

4. Use some discretion. Just because your laptop’s in front of you doesn’t mandate its constant use. Even if you’re taking notes, never looking up from your machine can be alienating to the presenter and those around you (not to mention inefficient too — ever spend too much time with your computer and later have to briefed about what actually went on in a meeting?) Strike a balance. Use your machine but pay due attention to the discussion at hand.

"It’s distracting for the person conducting the meeting to stay on point while someone is tapping away at a keyboard," says Martinsville, N.J., etiquette authority Maureen Sanders. "Nuances suggested by body language are often lost because there is no active eye contact when one party is preoccupied with his laptop."

5. Turn down the bells and whistles. Yet another point of compromise: Treat your computer as you would your cell phone at the theater. If you choose to bring it along, take a few moments beforehand to mute any sort of noise or sound that may prove distracting or annoying to your colleagues.

6. When in doubt, leave them out. Arnold recalls an introductory meeting with a company in which she asked participants to leave their laptops behind. "When I told them no laptops, there was nearly a mutiny," she says. Not to suggest that business revert back to the days of yellow pads and carbon paper, but there’s nothing cast in stone that makes laptops an essential element of business meetings. If you’re concerned that laptops may be more of a hindrance rather than help, you might consider keeping them out of meetings altogether. Do it on a trial basis and see if meetings suddenly blossom in productivity and efficiency.

7. Dissect your meetings. If you spot problems seemingly stemming from laptop use — poor attention, scattered discussions or the like — the issue may not be with the machines themselves. Rather, take a look at the mechanics of your meetings. It may turn out that improper laptop use may merely be symptomatic of a greater concern.

"There are underlying problems with many meetings — meetings held without a clear purpose or poorly planned or facilitated meetings — which contribute to the onslaught of laptops in meetings," Rice University’s Barrett says. "Companies sometimes meet out of habit instead of necessity. If meetings are well planned and well run, then people will be less likely to bring their multi-tasking habits into the meeting."