By Jessica Guynn Los Angeles Times – 03/31/2008 – 12:00am
LAPTOPS, IPHONES, BLACKBERRYS NOT ALWAYS WELCOME
As the birthplace of technology, Silicon Valley may have more gadgets per capita than any other place on the planet. Yet, even here, “always on” can be a real turn off.
Frustrated by distracted workers so plugged in that they tune out in the middle of business meetings, a growing number of companies are going “topless,” as in no laptops allowed. Also banned from some conference rooms: BlackBerrys, iPhones and other personal devices on which so many have come to depend.
Meetings have never been popular in Silicon Valley. Engineers would rather write code than talk about it. Over the years, companies have come up with innovative ways to keep staff meetings from sucking up time. Some remove chairs to force everyone to talk fast on their feet. Others get everyone to drink a glass of water beforehand.
But as laptops have gotten lighter and smart-phones even smarter, people have discovered a handy diversion, making more eye contact these days with their screens than one another. The practice became so pervasive that Todd Wilkens turned to his company blog to wage his “personal war against CrackBerry.”
“In this age of wireless Internet and mobile e-mail devices, having an effective meeting or working session is becoming more and more difficult. Laptops, Blackberries, Sidekicks, iPhones, and the like keep people from being fully present,” he wrote in November 2007. “Aside from just being rude, partial attention generally leads to partial results.”
His San Francisco design firm, Adaptive Path, now strongly encourages everyone to leave their laptops at their desks. His colleague, Dan Saffer, coined the term “topless” as in “laptop-less.” Also booted are mobile and smart-phones, which must be stowed on a counter or in a box during meetings. It took some convincing, but soon people began connecting with one another rather than with their computers, Wilkens said.
“All of our meetings got a lot more productive,” he said.
It’s not exactly attention deficit. Linda Stone, a software executive who worked for Apple and Microsoft, calls it “continuous partial attention.” It stems from an intense desire to connect and be connected all the time, to be, in her words, “a live node on the network.” And it seems to have engulfed all aspects of life, including the workplace.
The ever-increasing speed and power of technology allows employees to effortlessly toggle back and forth between tasks. The wireless revolution has only accelerated this trend, turning every laptop computer into a lightning-quick, mobile communications hub. Darting among multiple screens from an early age, young people in particular thrive on that connectivity.
“It’s increasingly difficult to get people’s undivided attention,” said Stanford University Professor Pamela Hinds, who studies the effects of technology on groups. “People would argue they are attending to the most important information without any loss of participation, but in fact they aren’t fully there.”
The culprit: Etiquette has not kept up with technology, said Sue Fox, author of “Business Etiquette for Dummies.”
“Social norms say that the person you are conversing with takes precedence over text-messaging, e-mail, and cell phone. This rule applies in business as well,” Fox said. “Today, people seem to be more focused on their fancy gadgets than on other people. Face-to-face meetings have become a low priority because they’re constantly being interrupted by technology, and many people can’t figure out what to do. What’s more important – the gadget or the person, or people, you’re with?”
Late in 2007, Jeremy Zawodny, who works with outside software developers at Yahoo, attended his first “no laptops” meeting at the Sunnyvale Internet company.
“I looked around in amazement that no one had their laptops open,” he said. “I try not to bring my laptop to meetings because the pull is strong if I am not interested in something being discussed or if the topic doesn’t directly involve me.”
After attending a few such meetings, Zawodny blogged about it earlier in March. He felt conflicted about the policy. On the one hand, he says, he found meetings useless if colleagues divided their attention. On the other, it’s “absolutely ridiculous that we have to mandate common courtesy and force people off their laptops long enough to have a useful meeting,” he wrote.
Zawodny’s post got a thumbs-up from Nelson Minar, a former Google engineer, who says supervisors can be the worst offenders.
“One of my biggest frustrations when I was an engineer at Google was being summoned to an executive meeting only to find three-quarters of the executives too busy with their laptops. I’d spend hours preparing a summary of my project status, a briefing on a new strategy area, or a review of staffing assignments. As requested. And three-quarters of the directors, (vice presidents), and higher would be busy tapping away on their laptops and paying no attention at all to my doing what they’d asked of me,” Minar commented on Zawodny’s blog. “Nothing communicates disrespect to your reports like ignoring them when they’re with you.”
The folks at Dogster, the San Francisco company that runs the sites Dogster.com and Catster.com, decided to cut the cord about a year ago. The decision was in keeping with its philosophy of creating a collaborative culture, said company co-founder John Vars.
“You can tell meetings go quicker and there is also just a shared experience. People are communicating better, the flow is faster.”
No problem here
Not everyone feels the urge to unplug. Selina Lo doesn’t mind if her employees multitask in meetings. After all, the energetic chief executive of Ruckus Wireless, a Sunnyvale WiFi company, is a known workaholic. She flashes $50 bills at off-duty cab drivers and delivers clipped answers to complex questions to save time.
“Occasionally, if I see someone too absorbed reading e-mails, I will elbow them,” she said. “People are going to get distracted. It’s OK as long as it is not for an extended period of time. I get distracted myself. That’s just how meetings are nowadays.”
And that makes some people wonder if by focusing on gadgets and gimmicks, everyone’s missing the real problem. “People hate most meetings,” Zawodny said. “No one teaches anyone to run them correctly. They become a source of frustration.”
Photo-sharing site SmugMug in Mountain View is an “anti-meeting” company, said founder Don MacAskill.
“We have a single all-hands meeting once per week, and the emphasis is on getting it over fast. Only one topic is allowed. Each person is expected to answer the question ‘What am I working on this week?’ and is expressly forbidden to talk about what they did the week before, make announcements, ask questions, etc.”
That sounds about right to Joe Lazarus, Yahoo’s former director of marketing, who left in November to consult and start his own company. He weighed in on Zawodny’s blog: “No laptop meetings make sense. No meetings make even more sense.”