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Talking Up Phones Down

Posted January 2018

I was talking to a colleague the other day and we were discussing the need and drive of generating social interaction in the meeting/board room. The discussion was on the back of the article, “How To Get People Off Their Phones In Meetings Without Being A Jerk” by Kirstie Hedges. One of the recommendations in the article is about requesting people to turn off or turn in their mobile phones when they enter into the meeting/board room. The purpose was to stop people from looking down at their phones and instead get them to look up and have a social conversation with their colleagues whilst they are waiting for the meeting to begin. The aim was to increase collaboration and social cohesion within the teams. It has since been documented that this has worked successfully.

Then I started to ask why – why did we fall into the trap of referring to our phones rather than the people in the room with us for interaction? Do we really prefer technology over real people? I am not sure and wonder if there is a potential bigger reason. My mind started to think back into history, and I thought perhaps the reason is not just down to our love of technology but to learned behaviours.

I doubt if anyone would challenge that if we think back to the 1980s or earlier, the Board room was predominately made up of men (and unfortunately this is still true in many cases, although we are trying to re-dress this, but bear with me…) And I wonder if in the Board room the behaviour was task focused because it seemed that the ‘social elements’ of the job, at the time, would take place in ‘gentlemen’s clubs or restaurants/bars or golf clubs. This perspective could also be further backed by the stereotypical argument of women are “too soft/chatty…” and hence do not belong in the Board room. As a result, many high-powered women would adapt to taking on more ‘male traits’, Margaret Thacher springs to mind as a good example of this, in order to been seen as capable and taken more seriously. Therefore not utilising the social interaction skill in the meeting/board room but instead focusing on the task at hand, as ‘chatting in the board room’ would be seen as a weakness.

Over the years, for various reasons, business tends to now not have the same social interaction in bars, clubs and restaurants, but it also has not been picked back up in the board/meeting room. As a result, there is a real deficit in social interaction at work and so many organisations are recognising the need to generate an environment where this can be addressed. This is evident in the design of informal collaboration spaces, team desks, collaboration booths, etc. Furthermore, a big objective for many organisations at the moment is to increase collaboration and team interaction.

At the same time, businesses also already have or are starting to recognise the millennial generation also struggle with social interaction. In an age where social media is a dominate way of communicating, this has come as a bit of a surprise. However it seems that having the ability to communicate electronically is not the same as communicating in person. Now thinking about that for a few minutes and the brain immediately says, “of course.” Yet here we are in a situation when socialising was not deemed to be the right thing to do and with a generation that struggle to socialise in person.

So now we are a professional society where social interaction skills are rare and a key development area. Now I do think there is still a bit to be said about the attraction to the digital devices the seemingly awkwardness face to face interaction can create – all I need to ask is networking and half of you reading this now will probably make an audible moan or sigh. So, what can we do to rectify this situation because we all know that business is really built on relationships and the strength of the relationship can be the difference between success and failure?

Firstly, I think Kirstie Hedges is right and we should ban all mobile phones from the meeting room to encourage everyone to interact on a person a level. Secondly, we need to get curious about the people we work with – find out what makes them tick by finding out what is going on in their world, whether that be the world of work, personal world or both. Through this exercise we may discover whole new insights that will help us do our job better, just by finding out and exploring someone else’s perspective.

Thirdly, I think we need to encourage the millennial generation to attend networking events – take them along with us, and ensure they have left their phone in the bag/pocket and show them how to network and create the “cocktail chat”. Encourage them to also research the concept of cocktail chat and what are the safe topics that requires not specific technical knowledge. Then ask them to write down 3 things they would like to get out of the evening before attending and don’t allow the “I don’t know” to be an answer.

We also need to instil these habits ourselves - I would argue all experienced staff have been on the training course that has taught us the rules of networking. Our challenge is we are either not confident in employing them or have forgotten them and/or feel awkward doing them. But the best thing about networking and social interaction is we are ALL in the same boat – some may make it look easier than others, but I can guarantee everyone feels awkward, unconfident and forgetful at all social interactions, whether that is because we forgot the name of someone we have known ages and hence feel awkward introducing them, or we can’t remember the name of the person we only met 30 seconds before or for other reasons. But we all feel this and hence we are all in the same boat – the beauty of it all is we are all in the same boat together, so we might as well sit down, get comfortable and strike up a conversation – you might surprise yourself.

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