A Radical Proposition: Phone-Free Conference Rooms

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Have you ever heard of phone stacking? When a group of people are out together (say, for dinner at a restaurant), they put their cell phones facedown in a stack and do their best to ignore the buzzes and rings and other notifications. At the end of the meal, they all pay their bills as usual—but if someone grabs his or her phone before that point, that person has to pick up the whole tab.

When this “game” was created a few years ago, it made waves because it hit a nerve: growing numbers of people were fed up with the intrusion of mobile devices into face-to-face social gatherings. But restaurants aren’t the only places where phone stacking could come in handy. Conference rooms, too, could benefit from phone-free interactions.

When was the last time you and your colleagues chatted with each other while waiting for a meeting to start? As a society we have become so addicted to our phones that most people usually spend that waiting time checking their e-mail, text messages, Facebook feeds, Snapchat streams, and myriad other social media and communication forums. And once the meeting actually starts, many people can’t ignore the siren call of the notification chime and check their devices whenever they can.

Marketing consultant and motivational speaker Simon Sinek makes this bold proposition: “There should be no cellphones in conference rooms. None. Zero.” Because the instant gratification of responding to a phone notification is difficult (if not impossible) for most people to resist, he says, let’s just eliminate the temptation—at least, for the duration of the meeting.

But with no group dinner bill on the line, phone stacking might not work so well in the conference room. So instead, just keep phones out of the conference room entirely. Ask meeting attendees to drop their phones into a bin on their way into the room, then stow the bin somewhere else (perhaps behind a locked door, to stop people from checking “just one quick thing”) until the meeting is over.

There’s a time and a place for everything. But a gathering at which attendees are expected to interact with each other or listen to a speaker or do something else that requires their full attention is not the time and place to look at cell phones. Many people have accepted the pervasiveness of cell phones as the new reality. But it doesn’t have to be this way: we can do a better job of living in the moment and building real face-to-face relationships. In fact, we need to do a better job at these things if we want to be successful in our professional lives (and in our personal lives, too).