They're the reason so many aimless assemblages take twice as long as they should. In fact, if there's anyone to blame for the millions of unproductive meetings that breed equally unproductive follow-up meetings each year, it's them.
But as long as there are meandering meetings that don't pertain to a majority of their attendees -- and as long as these meetings continue to gobble up a significant chunk of the workweek -- there will be meeting multitaskers. I should know. Having e-mailed, instant messaged, blogged, shopped, and even dozed through my fair share of counterproductive confabs over the years, I'm one of them.
Herewith, the top ways meeting attendees get caught with their digital pants down, so to speak -- and workarounds for each.
A software engineer I'll call Jordan shared this lamentable tale of how killing time during an all-day training seminar cost him a job he'd been at four months.
"After lunch the presenter was supposed to show us a product demo, but he couldn't get the thing installed," Jordan said.
While some of the meeting attendees tried to help the presenter load the software and others stared off into space, Jordan began playing a game on his laptop, something his previous employer had allowed workers to do, even during meetings. Only now, a peer who happened to glance at Jordan's computer called him on it -- and later told the boss.
"I went home and thought, 'With my laptop in hand, I probably could have been doing work,'" Jordan said.
Unfortunately, the boss had the same idea and told Jordan to pack up his desk the next day.
"It's better to be caught really working, so any double-timing needs to be about company business," said Nance Rosen, a Los Angeles business communication coach. "Never open a file you wouldn't want seen on a screen or by a speaker who might pace around the room and look over your shoulder."
That includes text messages, instant messages, e-mail, Facebook and Twitter. (Sorry, social media junkies.)
"I make my chief executive members turn off their cell phones, crackberries, etcetera during the meeting unless they are expecting the birth of a child that day," said Linda Swindling from Carrollton, Texas, a motivational speaker who runs a number of chief executive peer groups.
"They try to look, but you can always tell," Swindling said. "They put it just below the table and glance down at it. Looks like a teenager trying to cheat on the test."
"If there's a 'no cell phone' rule in the meeting and you know that something might come up, set your phone to vibrate and if the call comes in, hit the door," said Phil Stella, a workplace communication trainer from Cleveland, Ohio. Just be sure to tell the meeting leader you're expecting the call.
If you don't think a meeting you've been invited to has any relevance to you, it's okay to question the invite, as long as your company supports assertive communication, Stella said. Ask the meeting organizer, "What's the purpose of the meeting?" and "What do you want me to contribute?"