Thursday, February 27, 2020

The Laptop "Problem"

A few friends of mine have been pretty down on people using computing devices during meetings. The very presence of open laptops, tablets, phones, etc, gives them the impression that people are disinterested and disrespectful.

You might know the individuals in question, there are a few of them and they all have some pleasant association with me in the past, they are friends, and I'm not here to talk about them. I want to talk about Curiosity Over Judgment instead.

Corporate Training

A long time ago, when I was working for a company in the great midwest, we took a class on crucial conversations. Our instructor was from headquarters and so was clearly an Important Person. The topic was clearly a Very Important Corporate Topic to have flown someone in from headquarters and cancel a day of work to educate us.

My friend had an apple device that was his exclusive note-taking machine. If one is to take notes, it's best that they're collected together, and having them on his device meant he could organize and search them and also take his entire library of notes from place to place in a pocket. The device was an Apple Newton - this was well before the ubiquity of laptops and tablets.

Early in the course, the instructor walked to my friend's desk, tapped the device and said severely "Put this away."  My colleague tried to interject and explain, but the trainer would have no part of it. "Put it away now, please."

Realizing the hopelessness of his situation, my friend shut the Newton down and put it in his bag. Then he crossed his arms across his chest, sighed deeply, and checked out. I could tell he was not concentrating on the topic as much as fuming over the unfair treatment he'd just received.

The Important Corporate Topic was "crucial conversations."  Let that sink in.

The trainer who was presenting how to have crucial conversations just missed the greatest opportunity to practice and demonstrate the very tactic they were teaching us. Instead, a unilateral hard-correction command "Put this away."  No conversation about "I saw you were doing this, which led me to think that, what do you think, what will you do?" None.

Image result for apple newton

"Put this away now, please."

I approached the trainer during the next break because it allowed me to follow the rules and talk one-on-one to offer feedback.

"I noticed that you told Chris to put his device away."

"Yes, I don't need him distracted during this training. I can't believe he brought it in."

"Okay. I was thinking that maybe you didn't know what that device is and had misinterpreted it. Did you know that it's a note-taking device and he was keeping notes on the class? No? Okay, so what do you think about that?"

"I thought it was a game or something. I've never seen one of those."

"I thought that was the case. You didn't ask, either. You seemed intent on shutting it down."

"Well, I wanted him to pay attention."

"Do you know now that you prevented him from taking notes on your class? What do you want to do about that?"

"I'll take care of it."

"Thank you."

I just had my first "crucial conversations" type of talk, and it went well. I felt pretty good about it. I was waiting for the apology and explanation and change of behavior. To be honest, I was feeling both useful and a little smug as the instructor walked over to Chris's desk.

The instructor pointed at his computer bag, said "it's okay to use that now" and returned to the front of the class. No explanation, no apology, no nothing. As if it was not okay earlier, but now the class has reached a different point in the curriculum where it's okay -- no mistakes made, no assumptions, no flaws. I was dumbfounded, but at least Chris was able to take notes.

I vowed not to correct people based purely on my own assumptions.

Geepaw's Influence

I was co-teaching a class with Mike "Geepaw" Hill once. He was handling the first hour's introduction. 

He stated that one will get out of the class what one puts into it, and he expects that everyone will try to get as much as possible. 

However, he said, he expects everyone to be grownups and manage their attention appropriately and therefore he would not be policing the use of phones and computers in the room. 

He suggested that one could feel free to take notes, look up references, or whatever as much as necessary as long as they attended the classes and did their best. 

I had recently been co-teaching with another trainer who asked that all phones, tablets, and laptops be piled on a table at the back of the room. I remember feeling uncomfortable with what seemed a draconic measure to me, and wondered how students would take notes. I remembered Chris' Newton and felt bad, but didn't confront the very confident trainer at that time.

But now I was with Geepaw in Geepaw's classroom and I felt that what he was saying was right. We work with adults, they are tasked with learning, they are in charge, and there are reasons they may need a computer or tablet out. Some of them took notes, even. Some looked up references. Some were creating email lists of references and a summary of ideas for people who couldn't be there.

Some people were only allowed to be in the room under a manager's protest, because there were important things going on in their teams - releases, production crises, etc. That they were present in the room at all was a testament to their interest in the topic and their desire to learn even under these difficult circumstances. 

Rather than feeling competition from the devices, and disrespect from people using them, GeePaw gave respect and room to the attendees. I suspect they cared more because of it even if one or two of them may not have been paying full attention the whole time. 

Some Reasons You May Allow Devices In Meetings

Let's consider twitter again. Here are some of the reasons our tweeps have listed why people may have devices in meetings:
  • Note-taking (see Chris, above)
  • Remaining available to managers via text/chat/slack
  • Vision issues mean they can't see your materials except via screen sharing
  • They are struggling to attend your meeting even though other events pull at their time
  • They were invited in case they were needed, and are awaiting the need
  • They're researching (pulling up logs, databases, documents, source code)
  • They may be summarizing the meeting for people who want to be there, but can't be
  • They are asking questions of people who should be in the meeting, but aren't
  • What you didn't allow them to ask, they may be asking on a back-channel so that they can present a more complete idea to the room.
  • Neurodiverse people may need to "burn off" excessive mental energy -- using the device as a fidget cube (one US president did crossword puzzles during staff meetings while paying attention and asking probing questions)
  • Recording the meeting
  • Sketching or sketchnoting the meeting
  • Documenting the agreements of the meeting for dissemination.
  • Remaining available for some personal crisis (sick parent, children, pet, house sale, etc)
  • Fact-checking statements by meeting attendees.
  • Checking company policy where a violation seems likely
Face it, we can't tell a person's mental state by seeing them type into a computer from a distance. We are fooling ourselves when we think we can. 

Until we know for sure, we have only our assumptions.


It is possible, of course, to take the presence of devices in a meeting or training as an affront to one's ego -- "they aren't paying attention to ME" -- or as discourteous disinterest. One is free to do so. Some people do so routinely. 

It is also possible that someone at your meeting is "untending" the meeting, paying no attention whatsoever and doing their daily work in your office instead of theirs: physically present but mentally remote. It's also possible that there's a reason for that. 

But this issue is a classic case where we can value curiosity over judgment. Maybe it's unfair of us to assume that the device indicates some particular mental attitude (generally one of disrespect) in the device users when we really don't know what they're doing or why. 

Its too easy to let ego defenses and Fundamental Attribution Error take over, as it did for our instructor (and I think for my friends who objected so strenuously, citing disrepect) but that may be as counter-productive and destructive to relationships when we do it as it is when my corporate instructor did it.

Maybe we ask first, judge second?

A little curiosity over judgment can go a long way, as can some Geepaw-style respect for the people we work with. 

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