When we meet, can my phone come, too?

TEXAS-AUSTIN (US)—Peer pressure, not an effort to keep up with communications overload, most strongly affects use of electronic devices during meetings, a study from the University of Texas at Austin finds.

“There’s no doubt the ubiquity of mobile devices is changing the nature of workplace meetings,” says Keri Stephens, assistant professor of communication studies.

“What we’ve found is that simply feeling overloaded with messages coming from channels such as e-mail, texts, and instant messages is not the primary driver for multitasking in meetings.”

Stephens and doctoral candidate Jennifer D. Davis surveyed people from a diverse range of organizations, including engineering, finance, software, energy, marketing, and health care. The researchers found that what influences the use of mobile devices during meetings is the perceived opinions of peers and supervisors, and observation of others using their mobile devices in a meeting.

People have been using communication tools—pens and paper, for example—to multitask for decades, so the news that organizational norms outweigh individual ones appears to be due to the unique nature of portable technology, Stephens says.

If organizations ban mobile technologies or set new expectations for how they can be used during meetings, employee behavior will likely change, but while banning them will likely eliminate unproductive behavior, such as updating a Facebook profile or trading jokes about the meeting presenter, Stephens and Davis warn it could also stifle legitimately productive behavior that can enhance the meeting process.

For example, a manager might need access to information from a colleague traveling on business and a brief e-mail can result in an updated spreadsheet that changes the nature of the decisions made in the meeting.

The study concludes that problems surrounding use of mobile devices can be avoided with clear communication about expectations and policy prior to the meeting.

The report appears in the August issue of Management Communication Quarterly.

University of Texas at Austin news: www.utexas.edu/news