No laptops in meeting? Okay, but then I’m not going.

There appears to be a bit of backlash against bringing laptops into meetings. An example from Rands’ piece, The Laptop Herring

 Everyone wanted to know if there was a situation where it was OK to whip out the laptop. My answer, over and over again, is “No.”

The argument, as far as I can tell, is that anyone with a laptop open will spend the entire meeting Facebooking or otherwise not paying attention. This is simply not true. At least not entirely. As a shining example to the contrary let’s take, well, me. I need to take notes in meetings or I might as well not show up. As much as I love my Moleskine, there’s just no way to keep up by writing things longhand. So, I fire up a Tinderbox document and, surprise! actually take notes. As a precaution against distraction, I turn off wireless and close all unrelated apps. Easy!

And what about those who are wasting time on their laptops? If there are people in a meeting with enough free time to drift off-topic on a laptop or doodle on a notepad or just daydream, perhaps they should not have been invited to the meeting in the first place. This whole thing is a process problem and has nothing to do with technology. It’s not the attendees and their laptops who are to blame, either. It’s the meeting’s organizer(s).

Don’t invite people who have better things to do

Nine out of ten meetings are not worth the cost. And they cost a lot. There’s a tendency to automatically invite anyone even remotely related to the topic. Many of those folks have very little reason to attend and what’s worse, most of them might actually have real work to do.

So then, let’s say we’ve cut down our list to only critical attendees. Should laptops be allowed always? Nope. Top-of-the-head examples where a no laptop policy works….

  • Creative meetings. Might be one person that could capture notes toward the end, but most of the time it’s just idea bouncing. Besides, creative meetings shouldn’t have more than 4 or 5 people in them anyway.

  • Okay, I can’t think of any others.

Where might laptops be essential?

  • SCRUM sessions where developers need to reference, run or demonstrate code.

  • Any meeting with a combination of essential attendees and a requirement to capture notes.

Let’s pretend that I’m in a meeting and don’t need to be. This is unfortunately unavoidable in many environments. The Rands article reads my mind…

bq. You’re on the defensive now and you’re thinking “But Rands, while I’m not actively contributing to this meeting, I am getting work done on my laptop.”

That’s exactly what I’m thinking! But…

 No, you’re not. You’re giving the same partial attention to your laptop task that you’re giving to the meeting. You are doing two things poorly rather than one thing well.

Oh I most certainly am getting work done. While I agree that effectively multitasking things that require a good deal of concentration is impossible, there are many tasks that don’t need my full attention. The “scrubbing the bug database” example is one of them. I do a lot of traffic control this way, and I can do it well without much thought. Processing my email inbox is another. Scan, tag, label, archive. No problem, and I still know what’s been talked about in the meeting.

Summary? If meetings are planned properly, laptops are all good.