8 Ways to Reduce Distractions in Conference Room Meetings

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We’ve all been in THAT meeting. It’s during the post-lunch food fog, dragging on for over an hour with no direction, and you can feel your phone buzzing with texts and emails, begging for your attention. Or you’re leading a meeting and can’t keep your team members focused; you can see them surreptitiously checking their phones, or you suspect that as they’re busily tapping on their laptop, they’re doing more than taking notes on your powerpoint presentation. Cell phones, laptops, tablets, window washers, the smell of microwave popcorn wafting in from the cubes...it’s a miracle we ever get anything done!

A poll of office managers, efficiency experts, or just the employees in the break room would yield a lot of mixed opinions about how to reduce or eliminate distractions in your workplace, specifically in your conference room. Some feel that banning devices completely is the only way to have a productive and efficient meeting. Others encourage mindfulness and focus, and still more people say that distractions are an unavoidable part of the 21st century office environment.

Ban devices? Be mindful, or just deal?

The Time Management Ninja takes a hard line on the role of devices in a meeting, and suggests “disarming” your meeting by leaving all “weapons” (i.e. cell phones and laptops) at the door. It’s easy to see why this would contribute to shorter, more focused meetings: everyone is eager to be reconnected as soon as possible. Some simple rules to do this in a clear, firm, and fair manner:

  1. Make it clear from the beginning. As you plan the meeting and distribute the agenda, be very clear that this will be a device-free meeting. 
  2. Offer choice. If one of your team members absolutely needs to be connected to email or phone during the scheduled time, they should have a right to decline to attend the meeting. They wouldn’t be focused anyway. Give them the chance to make a decision about their priorities. 
  3. Leave devices at the door. This is it! Everyone leaves their phones, laptops, tablets, etc. on a table by the door and out of their pockets. No rings, buzzes, alarms or vibrations. Only paper and pencils.
  4. No latecomers. Be firm about closing the meeting once it gets underway. A late, flustered worker will disrupt your team’s focus and you’ll have to spend time recapping what you’ve already covered.
  5. Be efficient. You’ve asked a lot of your employees. Show them you respect their time by making the meeting as short and efficient as possible. 

An alternative to the “scorched earth” policy of banning all technology in the boardroom is incorporating mindfulness and holistic focus techniques. A recent book touts the benefits of “Thick Presence,” which refers to a hyperfocused, single-task operation system free from distractions. Think of it as a guided meditation for your conference room. Yes, it’s difficult to ignore your phone, but the more meeting participants connect with the other humans--and humanity-- in the room, the sooner you can reach a solution you’re all happy with. This site suggests a simple 1-2 minute grounding meditation exercise at the beginning of the meeting to help everyone clear away the mental noise of the day and be more fully present in the meeting. A couple of additional tips that might not be immediately obvious:

  1. Stay hydrated. Offer water in the meeting. Symptoms of mild dehydration include irritability and a lack of focus. 
  2. Allow and encourage doodling. Studies show that writing notes by hand and doodling boosts concentration and recall. Providing paper and pens in a meeting may net your team better results in record time.
  3. Focus on the whiteboard. Give everyone a dry erase marker and get them engaged in contributing to content on the board. If you have a big room and lots of potential contributors, consider putting IdeaPaint on the wall. IdeaPaint is a paint that turns your wall into a whiteboard. Now, instead of an average size board for everyone to write on, you have a giant wall sized writing surface. 

Finally, some experts recommend devices as a way to IMPROVE efficiency in meetings. Laptops, tablets and phones are an integral part of our workplaces, they reason, and we can harness their computing power. Of course, we know that reservation software can streamline conference room scheduling and booking, keeping all participants informed and up-to-date conference space availability.  Tech may have its uses within the meeting as well. Solid loves the total recall benefits of team-wide information sharing: communal digital meeting notes are accessible by all and eliminate the risk of forgetting an important detail. Centralized information enables a more creative brainstorming session. And the “Do not disturb” function on today’s smartphones allows your team to use shared scheduling and note-taking applications without constantly being assaulted by push notifications. Need to schedule the next session? Your conference room manager could have it done before you leave the meeting room, saving you a long email chain later.

Of course, sometimes distractions will intrude on even the best-planned and most efficient meeting. When that happens, Ubiq has a few tips for not taking yourself too seriously:

  1. Plan for failure. If your powerpoint presentation, video conferencing platform or projection screen just won’t cooperate, be prepared enough to go through the same material in hard copy. Showing a sense of humor when this happens helps everyone in the room get past the fluke and back to business.
  2. Acknowledge environmental distractions. Outside construction noise, sirens or a thunderstorm can be as distracting as technology. Take a minute to acknowledge them, and assess as a group if the meeting can continue despite the noise.
  3. Deal with renegade cell phones. There will always be one person who forgets to silence their phone or put it on “Do Not Disturb” mode. If a phone rings during your meeting, everyone is distracted. Acknowledge the moment and use it to reiterate your desire for focus as a means to a quick, productive meeting. If it happens a second time, ask the person to leave. 

Hopefully, one or a combination of these strategies will result in shorter, more focused meetings. Your colleagues will be happier, and you will make room in your meeting room schedule for other teams. You’ve created a little extra time in everyone’s workday. Go ahead. Reward yourself with some microwave popcorn.