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Excuse me. I have to take this call

Cell Phone Use in Meetings

Article by: Nancy Tobler
April 13, 2015

“Excuse me. I have to take this call.” In our weekly meeting, I asked what the group thought about answering a call during a meeting. A heated debate followed. I know that I am old and maybe even old fashioned. However, I do not take phone calls during meetings. In fact, I try not to take my phone with me to meetings at all. Most of you have an opinion on when and how people should use personal technology in meetings. In attempting to answer the question of what makes for an effective meeting, I asked how personal technologies such as cell phones or computers influence the effectiveness of meetings. What could be the harm of attending to our personal technologies during meetings? Research identifies two main problems. The first is being seen as rude or inconsiderate, and the second is diminishing your ability to listen.

Robert Hopper opens his book Telephone Conversation by describing the power the phone has over our lives. One of my favorite quotes is “Whenever the telephone rings, we stop whatever we were doing and scramble toward the promise of conversation. Money, power, or pleasure may move us, but we do not run into our offices after them” (p. 3). I know that this example dates me because most of us don’t have to run anywhere to get to the phone. However, the principle of the high priority of the phone (text or call) seems to be a potential problem in our society.

One research study looked at perceptions of cell phone use during meetings (Washington, Okoro & Cardon, 2014). The researchers surveyed 350 (53% M and 47% female) U.S. full time working professionals who made a minimum of $30,000 a year. For both formal and informal meetings, questions on attitudes about cell phone use were asked. The age groups were 21 to 30 (n=35, 10%), 31-40 (n=95, 27.1%), 41-50 (n=87, 24.9%) and 51-65 (n=133, 38%). Participants were from all four regions of the country and salaries ranged from 30 to more than $100,000. The one limitation to the study sample was the percentage of those who stated they were European American (74%).

In formal meetings, 87% say it is rarely or never appropriate to make or answer a call. 84% stated that it was not appropriate to write or send texts or emails during a meeting. 76% stated that checking text messages or emails was inappropriate. Browsing the internet was also seen as inappropriate for 76% of participants. Checking the time, checking incoming calls, bringing a phone to meeting and excusing oneself to take a call were all seen by around 50% of participants as inappropriate. The percent for informal meetings was much lower. However even in informal meetings, around 60% of participants did not approve of writing and sending texts, making or answering calls or browsing the internet.

The researchers also found that the younger you are the more accepting you are of cell phone use during both formal and informal meetings. Women were also less accepting of cell phone use during informal meetings. The higher his or her salary the less accepting the participant was of cell phone use.

Perhaps the greater problem comes when technology impedes our ability to listen. Educators continue to discuss the perceived problem of listening and use of personal technologies in the classroom. Kuznekoff and Titswork (2013) found that students who were distracted by text messages were able to pick out the answers to multiple choice questions, however, they could not answer an open ended question.

The question remains, how does cell phone distraction influence the business world? Despite the thousands of studies which point to negative effects of cell phone texting on listening and memory, few researchers consider it in the business meeting context. However, one study found that text messaging reduced output in a manufacturing setting (Donya & Afari-Kumah, 2011). This finding appears to be similar to the “time theft” idea that other studies report. Research has identified that interruptions in the medical setting can lead to disastrous outcomes.

Overall, the two areas of concern, perception of rudeness and ability to do your work, continue to be seen as a problem. The question on perception of inappropriateness or rudeness of cell phone use does seem to be seen as a disrupter to effective formal and informal meetings. Research indicates that cell phone use, either by calling or by texting or browsing the internet, interrupts our ability to focus on complex information and make good decisions. For me the lesson to learn here is that cell phone use may create effective meetings.

Donya, R. K., & Afari-kumah, E. (2010). Cellular phone usage and productivity among employees in a Ghanaian SME: an assessment. International Journal of Computing and ICT Research, 20.

Hopper, R. (1992). Telephone conversation (Vol. 724). Indiana University Press.

Kuznekoff, J. H., & Titsworth, S. (2013). The impact of mobile phone usage on student learning. Communication Education, 62(3), 233-252.

Washington, M. C., Okoro, E. A., & Cardon, P. W. (2014). Perceptions of civility for mobile phone use in formal and informal meetings. Business Communication Quarterly, 77(1), 52-64. doi:10.1177/1080569913501862

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Nancy Tobler

Nancy Tobler has a PhD in communication from the University of Utah. She specializes in research on how organizations change,...

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