Matt Partovi on Why I don’t tell people to close their laptops during meetings

Matt makes a great point that seems  at first to be a minor aspect of business etiquette: should people be using their companion devices during meetings? The traditional arguments are based on premises of attention and deference. ‘We should close our laptops (tablets, etc.) and direct our total, focused attention to the topic of the meeting. That’s both mindful and polite.’ You can imagine any number of Sunday-supplement, conventional wisdom arguments, as well.

But Matt takes a different tack altogether:

Matt Partovi, Why I don’t tell people to close their laptops during meetings

I don’t tell people to close their laptops in meetings, and here’s why:

  1. It’s taking a top-down, command-and-control approach. Their attention is theirs to give, rather than mine to take. I’d be making the decision for each person that what is being said is more important than everything else they could be doing at that time. What if they are working on something that had emerged that day? Responding to it for a few minutes during the meeting could be more valuable to the organisation. At the very least, being in the meeting means they can listen to most of it, rather than missing it all by not being in the meeting at all. As the meeting lead, I don’t have all the information as to how they should prioritise their other work ahead of or behind what I’m presenting. I’d prefer to give the individual as much context as I could about why we’re here, and then trust them to make the decision about where they devote their attention. Their attention is theirs to give, rather than mine to take.

Matt’s eye is on the productivity of the network — including people outside the meeting — not on the hypothetical purpose of the meeting, or the tender sensibilities of the meeting leader. He is biased toward autonomy, and the trust that underlies the third way of work: we have to trust coworkers to make their own judgments about how to accomplish the work in front of them, and how to balance their various commitments. It’s not our job to pick their tool or techniques, or to determine if they can or can’t effectively split their attention across what’s taking place in the meeting and what’s on their screen. Over time we come to understand if someone meets their commitments or not, but it’s the outcomes that matter, not how they did or did not get there.

Behind Matt’s aphorism — Their attention is theirs to give, rather than mine to take — is a deeper and larger truth. We are now shifting into the always- and loosely-connected workplace of the third way of work (leaving behind the partially- and tightly-connected workplace of the second way of work), we will come to realize that time is a shared space, as I recently wrote

Time is a shared space, a common resource: a commons. None of us owns the moment we are living in: we share it.

The meeting leader who demands that attendees must close their laptops is trying to corner the market on time, and to put his personal interests against the needs of the many, relying on a false doctrine of obligation instead of trusting others to balance their own attention. If you think of it as a question of increased diversity and the need for accepting higher degrees of dissensus as the only answer to the faster speed of business, then it is cast in a totally different light.

The third way of work incorporates the idea that time is the new space. And as Yves Behar said about rethinking how we share space in our workplaces, transitioning to a new way to share time is not the work of a moment, but the work of a movement. That movement will manifest itself in small changes — like not asking for undivided attention in meetings — that represent a tectonic shift below in the cultural rules and values at the core of work culture.