Should you check emails in meetings?

It can be hard to strike a balance between productive multitasking and being downright rude
Meeting etiquette needs a revamp for the digital age – but many of the old rules still apply.
What are your pet hates when sitting in meetings? Is it the colleague who stares out of the window or yawns when you are speaking? Or maybe it’s the boss who talks non-stop and doesn’t listen? Or even the person next to you who helps themselves to a cup of tea and biscuits without offering them to you?
There have always been irritations to contend with when sitting in meetings. But now that everyone has at least one smartphone, if not two, there’s a whole new set of bad behaviour in town.


That’s because the lure of emails, texts, instant messages and social media updates can be almost impossible to ignore. Many now believe it is totally acceptable not only to check their phones for incoming messages, but to send email messages as well.
So widespread and important has this lapse in behaviour become that Debrett’s, the arbiter of good manners in our social and work life, has issued the following guidance: “Remember your mobile manners. Make sure that your phone is on silent. Smartphones should also be ignored unless a message is urgent or relevant to the meeting. Never send a text message or repeatedly check your phone during a meeting.”
UK HR directors that we surveyed on this issue appear to agree with Debrett’s advice. Only 12 per cent of them said that it’s acceptable to read and respond to messages during a meeting. More than two fifths (41 per cent) said that it’s OK to read and respond to messages but only if the message is urgent. Almost a quarter (23 per cent) said that it’s fine as long as attendees excuse themselves and step outside of the meeting to respond. The remainder (25 per cent) said it’s never OK, and that email devices should be turned off or not brought to the meeting at all.


The problem is that there’s a very fine balance to strike between productivity and being distracted from the matter in hand (i.e. your meeting). Accessibility to emails via personal and work devices has widened the parameters of the working day, and it’s easier than ever to switch your concentration from one task to another.
However, it’s important to consider how this looks to others in the meeting, especially if they are senior colleagues or clients. Are they going to be impressed by your ability to multi-task, or do they suspect you are simply checking personal messages on Facebook? Our research suggests the latter is more likely, so the best advice might be to follow these tips:


Always leave your phone on silent in your pocket. Few things are worse than a loud, disruptive buzz in the middle of a discussion.


If it’s really unavoidable to check urgent messages, let everyone know at the beginning of the meeting that you may need to check your phone intermittently.


If you need to answer a message, excuse yourself at an appropriate point in the meeting and step outside, just as you would if you had to make a call.


Sending emails during meetings is the modern equivalent of looking over someone’s head at a party to see if there’s someone more interesting to talk to. Being ignored can lead your colleagues to doubt whether you are interested in what they are discussing – as well as your dedication to the common cause.
Rachel Stockell is senior manager at OfficeTeam, a Robert Half company.

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