Laptops Not Invited

October 4, 2013 Tami Reiss

At Pivotal Labs we have a few basic rules for meetings. Number one: No Laptops Allowed.

At first this may seem counterintuitive and inefficient, especially for a software development firm. However, client and team members alike are pretty quick to convert once they experience the benefits of this simple rule, which has an immediate and profound effect on productivity and engagement.

We all know that the multi-function, connected devices we love are distracting, if not addictive. And of course weʼve all had the experience of missing something important during a meeting while sneaking a peak at an email or researching some random factoid that seemed crucial at the time. But thereʼs more subtle distractions that occur when a team member keeps a laptop open during a meeting, even when itʼs being used for something relevant to the work at hand.

Before I came to Pivotal, I used my laptop to take notes. Once I got here, I quickly learned that while this practice may have seemed beneficial to me personally (and therefore the wider team who could read my notes later), it was actually doing more harm than good. First, thereʼs simply the sound of typing, a small, but real distraction that interrupts the flow of conversation. Then thereʼs the barrier it formed between me and the other teammates – literally a physical barrier and psychological cue that I was not connecting. And finally, it was an invitation for others to open up their laptops, which becomes a slippery slope of divided attention.

Easier said then done, but the solution was in fact simple: remove the distraction and close the laptop. It took me some time to adjust, because as a product manager a big part of my job is being the center of information for the team, but I havenʼt looked back since.

At Pivotal, we emphasize that meetings are for teams to connect and engage in healthy communication. We keep staffing lean and our meetings efficient, so it is essential that everyone stays engaged to share their important perspectives on risks and opportunities for minimizing them. Our conference rooms always have an ample supply of index cards, pens, and markers, and a whiteboard, so if somebody has a useful diagram or thought, itʼs easy to share with each other instead of squirreling it away in Evernote and missing a chance to expand on a great idea.

Of course there are exceptions to every rule, and I want to emphasize that there are times when a laptop is welcome at a meeting, even here at Pivotal. Sometimes we use laptops to project designs, site builds, or Pivotal Tracker, or to dial in a remote team member. But we always use it to collaborate and work together, and with full awareness of the purpose. And with distracting notifications turned off to keep the focus on the meeting.

Interested in testing the laptop free waters? Try it out for just the first ten minutes of the meeting. There are few emails that can’t wait that long. More importantly, you will realize how much clearer the meeting is, and how much easier the conversation is to follow. And stay tuned for more tips and tricks from the product management team here at Pivotal.

Tami Reiss is a product manager at Pivotal Labs, where she helps clients create software that connects people and technology in new ways every day. She is fascinated by the emerging physical computing trend and is an avid cyclist. Follow her on Twitter at @tamireiss and read more of her blog posts here.


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