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If Your Laptop Is Open, You're Not Listening (benbobsworld.blogspot.com)
63 points by jgrahamc 499 days ago | hide | past | web | 63 comments | favorite

If I feel your meeting is relevant to me, I'm listening and you don't have to worry about banning laptops. If you don't think i'm capable of deciding whether a meeting is relevant to me, fire me because I'm bloody incompetent.

If your meeting is not relevant to me, I'll try to get out my laptop and get some actual work done while my time is being wasted or if we meander into areas that are not of relevance.

If you ban laptops, and for some bizarre reason I still have to attend and your meeting is not interesting to me, i'll code on bloody pen and paper and enter some of that code into the computer once I get back to my desk, or i'll try to do SOMETHING productive. Trust me, you don't magically have my cognitive attention...

I had a consultant/workmate try to ban laptops in her meetings. No prizes for guessing whether I think it was the laptops or the meetings (or the consultant) that were the far bigger waste of time/attention/money...

Hire competent people and let them decide what the best use of their time is...or at least admit that you think its justified treating other's in the workplace like children...

It's not black/white situation. Sometimes only part of the meeting will be relevant to you. By using laptop or any device you show no respect to the person that organised the meeting but as well you might losse a lot. I agree that people tend to organise to many meetings but doing anything else on that meeting is not a solution. Sadly (as I am developer too) I realised that developers often thing that they are to smart to do anything else to code and this is the only good way of spendign their time.

I am, believe it or not (i'm not sure I believe it myself sometimes), socially aware enough to realise that there are different cultures, personalities, etc etc, some of whom believe various actions are "disrespectful".

I get that. I really do. But there's so many things on that list these days. Its what I feel if i'm told to close a laptop when its quite clear i've already made a decision on whether what is being said is relevant to me or whether i have better things to do. I'm also aware of the social power/authority plays involved in such, as well as traditional etiquette.

But i'm also getting to that stage of life where I'm no longer as concerned about whether some numpty feels i'm disrespecting them by prioritising my time against their preferences or being "rude" by being practical.

I'm aware you can't do this in many workplaces/contexts where you basically have to be submissive/concordant with a workplace culture that says otherwise.

But my life is too short for me to worry seriously about such things anymore. I don't go out of my way to offend, nor do i take said actions as some kind of social/political power play. If a person doesnt want to work with me because of that or gets offended, well, rack another one up on the board...

Its not black and white, granted...but I think its more statistically valid that people who make a big fuss about such are more likely to be on my own "waste of time/oxygen" list...

Easier solution: quit demanding "respect" by asking people to pay attention through irrelevant stuff to appease your ego. Some meetings will have things relevant to different groups of people over time, and you don't need everyone's full attention for the whole meeting.

Why bother turning up in the first place if it is so irrelevant?

It's not always a choice. Even when it is not overtly made mandatory, it often have "political" consequences if you are seen as detaching from what happens in the team. Being physically present has significant signalling effects.

"You guys can probably handle this without me. Do you need for me anything else?"

Or, if that is not acceptable due to workplace hierarchy, talk to your manager and explain the problem. If being present is a political necessity, chances are so is not secluding yourself behind a screen.

Telling people to "quit demanding respect" can have "political" consequencs, too.

And may be you missed the point that, like being physically present, opening laptops in the meeting also has significant signalling effects.

It was always ironic going to a school that touted laptops in the classroom as a selling feature, and then having professors demand the lids be closed. I'm divided on the issue, but having a laptop reassures me that I can reclaim my time during a redundant/slow lecture. My alternative of choice, being a lazy student, was to not go to class, going from 20% listening to 0%.

If the meeting isn't relevant to you, why do you even go to it? Just decline the invitation with your reason.

Because modern corporate/professional life is filled with ridiculous events where they care more about headcount/attendance than whether there is actually any content.

I'm not yet powerful enough to get out of the fraud/shit-show entirely :P

> I'm not yet powerful enough to get out of the fraud/shit-show entirely :P

In many organizations, the 'more powerful' are even more greatly hamstrung by mandatory (and fruitless) meetings.

We don't always have the luxury of being able to decline without repercussions.

It is pretty simple. If I am forced to attend unnecessary meetings I either bring my laptop and it is a valid assumption that I am not 100% following the meeting or I bring something else if laptops are banned (printouts, etc.). Worst case I will just space out. If meetings are relevant, well planned, interesting I will listen and contribute. I still might bring and use the laptop for notes.

I cannot agree more.

The amount of lunacy and idiocy going on during these "quick" meetings has been driving me nuts. Imagine a room full of VPs, each making no less than $200K a year, discussing the need to spend $1K on hardware.

And the punch line - we just spent more salary $ during this meeting, than it would take to rent these for a year from OVH or AWS.

I worked with a guy that used to say: "I need approval for a $500 hardware buy, but I can call a meeting that would cost thousands of Dollars in salaries any time I want"

I wish companies had a "meetings budget" and had to justify the ROI of each meeting... One can only dream :)

One practice I've found useful, that is more general, was to issue weekly reports breaking down the cost of each activity. That is, I'd solicit a ~5-10 line breakdown from everyone in my team of how they spent their time that week, and I'd apply average costs for their function and tally it up.

So we might see posts like $2k for a planning meeting show up on the report, and suddenly people started paying attention to what time was spent on - both for meetings and otherwise.

And making arguments like the one in your example. It also meant being able to make actual estimates over whether pursuing a certain optimization would be worth it vs. buying more hardware.

Amazingly each place I've done this at, they were initially confused why I wanted to do this, as apparently it was weird and unusual to have engineering issue such breakdowns

Wonder how much "weekly report compilation" would cost :-)

Since you're mentioning OVH, it reminds me of a story I've been told about Octave Klaba, OVH's founder (not sure if it's true or not actually): he is said to have forbidden any meeting "longer than 90 minutes" in his company.

By "longer than 90 minutes", he means that the total time spent by the people participating in the meeting should not be longer that 90 minutes (so 2 participants -> 45 minutes, 3 participants -> 30 minutes, etc.).

This fits your logic perfectly.

That's an interesting way to make the participants actually plan and think about what they're going to discuss ahead of the meeting.

I used to work at Yahoo (a decade ago). At the time every hardware purchase went through a review committee in Sunnyvale. Even for e.g. Europe - I worked out of the European head office in London.

That committee included one of the founders (I can't for the life of me remember if it was Yang or Filo). I had to buy $4k worth of hardware once and they spent 20 minutes grilling me about load data etc. from the current server.

It just baffled me at the time that a multi-billion dollar company saw it as worthwhile for one of its founders to spend 20 minutes discussing a $4k purchase.

Not to mention the signal value about how little they trusted the judgement of their engineering team.

I concluded that it basically was about two things:

1) to keep said person away from more important decision, at the cost of annoying a lot of other people. 2) as an intentional barrier to make people think twice about asking for more. To #2 on one hand I appreciate fiscal responsibility, but at the same time I've seen too often how making people overly stingy often wastes huge amount of resources trying to engineer around something that could be solved for a tenth of the cost by throwing more hardware at it.

"You need to get approval for a $1,000 purchase, but you can scheduled a 1 hour meeting with 20 people without approval"

I've been to hundreds of meetings and I can count on both hands the meetings that were actually important for the team assembled.

I agree with the spirit of the article, but the problem remains that most meetings are, at best, fora for discussing things that could be discussed in a more decentralized manner, and, at worst, complete wastes of time where one person is flexing control muscle in order to inflate their self-importance.

The problem with "meeting culture" is completely unrelated to the problem addressed in the article, except to say that the problem addressed in the article wouldn't be such a problem if the "meeting culture" problem were addressed instead.

Don't call a meeting if you don't really need one. Hint: most projects really only need 2 meetings: one at the beginning, and one at the end. Everything in-between can be dealt with in a much more streamlined manner. This, unfortunately, includes "Agile" development "stand-up" meetings. With the correct tools they become completely unnecessary, and only serve to hinder (or artificially accelerate) development milestones.

I'm sure that there are some teams out there who do this correctly, but I haven't been lucky enough to come across any yet.

I'm really tired of the trope that "Multitasking is not scientifically possible, and anyone that claims they are more productive doing it is lying to themselves."

It's paternalistic and condescending and always written by those that don't like to multitask already to make themselves feel better about the multitaskers around them.

And it completely ignores those of us with various forms of Attention Deficit (I would venture a much larger component of millennials and software engineers have this compared to previous generations) who know what works for us and what doesn't.

If you give me 3 1-hour-long tasks and tell me I have to work on them sequentially with no switching, I will get bored in the middle of each one, get distracted by something shiny, or stare into space if you try to keep me from doing anything else. I'll need to take a break between each one because my brain is so strained from having to focus on one thing.

In all, I expect each one to take me 1.5-2 hours plus another 30 mins for breaks between, so maybe 5 hours total at a minimum.

On the other hand, if I can alternate and context switch between all 3 as soon as my brain gets bored, I'll be able to keep engaged and work continuously. Sure each one may take me 1.25 hours, but I won't need a break. And the whole thing will get done in 3.75 hours, not 5.

(Numbers completely fabricated, obviously)

The same applies to meetings. I'm not defending coding or working on a challenging problem while listening to a presentation. That will certainly occupy my mind and I won't hear the presenter. But checking some non-complicated emails? Organizing some files or documents? ANYTHING menial is perfect because it allows my brain to stay engaged while also paying attention to the presenter. Without this minor distraction, if I am forced to listen to a boring presentation with my full focus, I will unquestionably lose the focus and find myself drifting off and wondering how much I've missed.

Multitasking (at least for some definition of the word) is possible and I do it; I have done it for many years. Maybe if I could single-task I would be more efficient; I will never know because I can't. And yet I am efficient and 'get shit done'. Maybe i'm doing simple stuff; I usually am writing coding, chatting on skype/wechat/slack, browsing the web and having some movie or tv show or youtube tech event video on (I pick up enough to enjoy it and learn from it in the latter case). It works fine and has worked for 20+ years.

The exception is when someone feeds me dense enough information that I cannot process together with other things but I cannot focus on it very long without needing to reprocess it which is why that rarely happens and this kind of information is usually provided (and requested) on paper.

So yes, I agree with you; I have never been diagnosed with anything but I always have been capable of getting work done while others are sitting through slow talking people in meetings (usually the case). It actually helps me not just completely shutting the presenter out and hear nothing at all.

Obviously you are working on simple stuff if context switching makes it easy for you. I find the exact opposite problem, I spend and hour or two loading everything into memory, then get some user need me to help with their excel errors or something else. That was honestly the biggest productivity killer for me (having worked without many interruptions for the first year of my previous job).

Joel seems to think similarly: http://www.joelonsoftware.com/articles/fog0000000022.html

I totally respect your stance and Joel's too. I know many devs like this.

I guess maybe the point should be that there is no one size fits all solution for stuff like this (and also floor layouts - I find myself MUCH more productive in open floor layouts. I find a private office a productivity killer . Joel disagrees)

And it completely ignores those of us with various forms of Attention Deficit (I would venture a much larger component of millennials and software engineers have this compared to previous generations)

Why would 'millenials' suffer from Attention Deficit more than other generations?

Sorry, what was that? I just had to reply to this text message on my phone just now.

The argument you’re making is the same reason why we switched from batch processing to multitask processing.

Waiting on IO and refocusing is such a slow task that time scheduling other CPU-heavy jobs during that time can optimize performance a lot.

The problem with this argument is that computers take very little time to context switch - a couple of milliseconds at most. Most humans take closer to 30 minutes or an hour to do the same type of context switch.

As a fellow ADHD'er, I realized some time ago that while multi-tasking, I was just doing multiple things poorly. I'd lose the stack, forget tasks, lose conversations - basically be a waste of space, except for the very rare times where I could write brilliant code due to hyperfocus.

When not on medication, I will be forced multitask, but I do so with "tasks" which require differing amounts of concentration - so I can leave one part of my mind stewing on a problem while looking at cat pictures.

Same here. The discovery that I should only do one CPU-heavy task at a time was very useful.

Also, bosses + coworkers prefer if you always seem busy – so, while planning code, take a block of paper, and draw flowcharts, class diagrams, etc – it helps visualize the thoughts (so you keep them even if interrupted), and it makes you seem more effective.

A perfect metaphor :)

The best meeting policy I saw was this one:

1) All meetings are capped to be maximum 15 minutes long. No exceptions. (This means everyone have to be prepared, and there are pre-designed meeting plans to follow).

2) There are two slots each day that can be used anytime: one "briefing" in the morning, and one "debriefing" in the evening. If something urgent happens, there is also one possible slot mid-day for emergency meetings, to be used sparingly.

Did they ever not schedule the first and last meeting? How often were those meeting pointless? How often did they run out of time and have to abandon the meeting? What did they do when that happened?

I am the original author of this article. I just found out that a friend had posted it on HN and found these comments. Most seem to fall into a few categories:

"If I'm not paying attention, it's because your meeting is boring or irrelevant."

I am not talking about people who open their laptops in a few (or even most) meetings where the content is boring. I'm talking about people (including myself until recently) who open their laptop or pick up their phone in every single meeting they attend. If you are not that person, no reason to be offended. If you are, then please explain to me how every single meeting can be irrelevant.

"I have ADHD, I can multitask. In fact, I work better when I multitask."

Somewhere between 5% and 11% of all children in America are believed to have ADHD. Even if quadruple that number for people in the computer industry, that still leaves the majority of the population as non-ADHD sufferers. Those are the people I'm talking about. The majority. Also note that I'm not just talking about people in the computer industry, but all information workers. The incidence of ADHD in the general population is not nearly large enough to explain the epidemic I'm describing.

"But I use my laptop to take notes."

The second sentence in the article clearly states that it is fine to do so "for the purposes of the meeting - to take notes..." I guess you must have been multitasking and missed that sentence. :)

"Maybe you should make your meetings more interesting if you want me to pay attention."

I will just quote from the article again: "As the meeting organizer, I should, of course, strive to make the meeting relevant and the decisions concrete. Otherwise, I deserve to be ignored for the latest tweet or alert."

I disagree with this strongly, mostly because I hate conversations or meeting where people debate something which has a factual answer which someone with a laptop/internet/shell/calculator/IM client/Google can answer definitively in 10 seconds. Instead, people waste minutes (or, worse, say something will be tabled until later, perhaps calling an entirely different meeting!) to deal with it.

If you look at the most productive meetings at places like Google, people have data and processing capability to hand, and end up referring to it. If that is "IM the guy in another state who isn't needed for the meeting but has the a answer to this specific question", easy choice.

But you don't need 10 laptops for that. I agree with the article strongly. At Google, the team with the best meeting culture I've been in had a no laptop culture (not rule, but new team member would adjust pretty quickly when everyone else had no laptop except for the presenter / note taker). Our meetings were shorter than in my other teams, and more productive.

But I also agree, if a meeting is not productive for you, there is no need to attend them (and meeting notes should be sufficient to catch up).

People aren't interested in my meetings hence we must remove the distractions.

Another more constructive approach might be to make your meetings more useful/engaging.

And to plan them better, with the right people, at the right time.

Have an established topic, stick to it, only bring in people for whom it is relevant, make it short and to the point, choose a timing that don't interrupt people activities.

I certainly agree that if your laptop is open, you're not really listening. (If you're looking up something for the meeting, then the fact that you're not listening may well be a contribution, of course.)

What I think is not so clear is whether or not it's okay to have people at a meeting who are mostly-not-present, but just background-listening. They might know that the meeting is mostly not for/about them, but that it might touch on their stuff, and they want to stay loosely informed. Of course, if someone takes good notes and sends them around, those might be just as good, but maybe no such notes exist.

I'm sometimes called to attend meetings to act as a "tech advisor" – in case any technical questions arise they know I'm physically there so they can grill me all they like.

Most of the time, I don't say a word during the whole meeting other than "Hello, my name is so-and-so and I'm a software developer at the company" and then "It was a pleasure meeting you, looking forward to next time!". I just quietly work away in a corner, pretending to take notes. The project managers feel more confident when they know I'm there, so I can be there just as well as anywhere else.

As long as you're not expected to be actively participating, there's no harm in not being actively participating.

So many comments segwaying into, meetings waste my time, and I'm a coward who won't address this issue instead, so I have a right to use my laptop cause I'm smart.

I haven't seen any "I'm a coward who won't address this issue instead" responses, rather "I'm not in a management or directorial position to address this issue so I'm stuck with it".

Individual employees who try to change corporate behavior tend to be unsuccessful, especially against such ingrained concepts as "We should just call a meeting!".

Hardly anyone in the comments has mentioned the work power hierarchy, so it seems reasonable to assume many of them are too coward to address it properly.

In this example, the work-power hierarchy means that employees get paid to waste time in meetings. If they pull out a laptop to do other work, then they are accused of "not paying attention". They aren't cowardly to let this particular sleeping dog lie, they're accepting that, despite their initial attempt to be more productive in otherwise wasted time, the company will pay them anyway.

If the owners (or stakeholders) of the company failed to address this, then they still can't be described as cowardly, just incompetent.

The employees, if they're being paid anyway, aren't going to rock the boat improving the productivity output of the employer, especially after they've been shot down once for attempting to actually be more productive. They'll just shake their heads in disbelief at the fact that the company is willing to pay them to be unproductive.

FYI: It's spelled "segue". Segway's the uncool hoverboard with a handle :)

(I don't normally post spelling corrections even when they make me twitch as I'd never get off HN, but I made an exception here as the brand "Segway" was a deliberate pun.)

Most meetings (by far) could be done in minutes. Instead (and I have 1000s of anecdotes literally) people like to pleasantly do things, make jokes, laugh a lot etc. Do painfully long introductions (while everyone was in the mail and already checked Linkedin etc). But worse: ill prepare or not at all and just improvise. Worse yet: see it as a break or even (half) day out. There is place for this, but that's not something that should be the norm. It's teambuilding, sales etc and it's important. For normal meetings, when prepared, meetings can be done in minutes; send an agenda upfront, let people do a few rounds of discourse about those points in the agenda via mail/slack and give them a chance to do some research. Then discuss and decide efficiently.

There are enough exceptions but that's not most meetings. Most meetings are not about a critical company policy or about a critical technical dilemma where core infrastructure has to be changed. Etc.


"New side project: price tags on Google Calendar events based on the inferred hourly rates of participants."

Let me preface this by saying I don't bring my laptop to meetings, but all the meetings we have are interesting.

I'd argue if you're having trouble getting your employees to pay attention either they don't need to be there, or the meeting isn't being run properly.

I've seen no comments about the legitimate use of a laptop in a meeting. I take my laptop to meetings all the time, and am paying attention. I use my laptop to take notes, using a different piece of software for different kinds of notes: Notes for textual bullets, CMapTools for a concept map of the meeting,and a Trello clone (albeit not as good as Trello) for tasks. Usually most of the time is spent in concept mapping, as that is my preferred method of notetaking.

The idea that we all still have to take notes using pen and paper astounds me, and seems horribly inefficient.

It depends what you're doing with it.

I find that if I sit doing nothing in a somewhat boring meeting, my mind will wander and I'll often zone out completely.

Whereas if I use my phone to play simple visual games which don't require any language processing (e.g. freecell), I'm much more able to concentrate on what the speaker is saying.

It's not quite as good as listening properly, but overall I think listening to everything with half an ear (or more) is better than missing parts of the meeting entirely. And if anything directly relevant comes up I can stop and focus.

Is having your laptop open so different from doodling[0]? Even if there's no comparison, one can work, or puzzle out other issues during those parts of the meeting which they already understand. Banning laptops entirely is a good way to reduce productivity.

[0] http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/blogs/education/2014/07/keep-ca...

That prompts me to say the same thing when people complain about their kids are always in their phones: have you tried being interesting than a phone or a laptop?

If you will actually give people information that is important to their job, they will put a laptop or phone aside and listen to you very closely. But if they're always distracted by something else, could you be wasting their time with this meeting?

Now I partly agree with this, but there is a bit of activation energy to conquer.

If the audience starts by looking at the phone/laptop, you have to basically buzzfeed people into paying attention ("Oh, here's a cat picture haha, now back to our MRR discussion") for enough time to get the 30 seconds of attention to get them. Because if not, people's attention is already captured by the device

If the policy is like "don't use your laptops for the first couple of minutes", then at least you timebox the important stuff and give the talker a chance.

> buzzfeed people

That's a great idea and reminded me of an SAP SME we used to have who would insert meme photos at arbitrary points of a slide-deck. Worked well for breaking the zombie-trance of attendees.

Another rule I saw was to allow people to bring laptops but leave them on a table at the back of the room. Still available for reference and emergencies but the attendees had to make a conscious and obvious to go to the laptop.

I strongly disagree with this. I have the inattentive kind of ADHD and the coping mechanism that works for me is to multitask.

Few people are wired to comprehend "tl;dr" versions of stuff -- if the meeting is going for eternity, please don't blame me for not listening.

Which is why I try to insist on stand up meetings. Not the "agile/scrum" morning status micromanagement stand up meeting, but normal meetings Ie quick architecture design, general discussions, generally around a white board of some type. Standing up will ensure people cant be on their laptop/ipad and will also keep it short.

For eyes forward meetings bring your laptop, they are mostly waste of time anyway.

If your meeting is not interesting or relevant, I don't need to have my laptop open to ignore you.

I rarely, if ever, attend a meeting where every single person is expected to pay attention for the duration. On the rare occasion this happens, people DO pay attention. Maybe it's the meetings and environment that need changed.

"Multitasking is impossible" is seriously overgeneralizing from personal experience. It's just not true that it's impossible. It's certainly impossible for me - if my laptop is open, I'm not listening. But that's not true for everyone!

I was always under the impression that human multitasking means failing at multiple things at once. It seems to be just that different people feel different about success.

If people are bringing laptops and cell phones and are on them in your meeting, you are not really having a meeting with them. They are there, but they are not there.

If my laptop is open your meeting is not my only priority. Sorry.

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