The Reference Desk – March 2012

In the column below, reprinted with permission from the AALL Spectrum, former reference librarian, Liz McCurry Johnson, provides her perspective regarding the use of mobile technologies during meetings.


Q: My boss just had a conversation with me about the exact type of behavior your last column addressed: using a smart phone during meetings. However, she brushed it off as another generational difference. Then she commented that the millennial generation doesn’t know how to communicate face-to-face, so she expects us to be rudely attached to our devices at all times. I’m outraged, because I take my smart phone into meetings for multiple reasons: 1) to check the time so that I stay on schedule, 2) to look up information as questions arise, and 3) to check my schedule if future meetings need to be arranged. How do I bring this issue back to my boss so that she doesn’t see me as immature and rude?

A: I agree that you need to address this issue with your supervisor. She not only seems to have made broad assumptions, but she also seems unwilling to investigate other viewpoints. That sort of rigidity could thwart the healthy conflict of communication that often leads to creative ideas and solutions. I think this goes beyond merely dealing with multiple generations in the workplace. I’ve asked my friend and former co-worker, Liz McCurry Johnson, for guidance. Liz is the chairperson of AALL’s Gen X/Gen Y Caucus, as well as a reference librarian at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

Liz says: “As with anything in life, you have choices. You could stay mad at your boss and continue to take your smart phone into meetings. But by ignoring the situation, you run the risk of creating a bigger rift between yourself and your boss. And it doesn’t allow you any personal growth opportunities.

“Another option is that you could merely stop taking your smart phone into meetings. Changing your behavior here may have some effect on your boss’s perspective, meaning she may believe that her message was effectively communicated, but on the flip side, you force yourself to figure out alternative methods of organization that you previously relied on your smart phone for, such as scheduling and timekeeping. Additionally, I don’t generally recommend avoiding conflict situations like these because they tend to breed frustration and more tension between colleagues.

“The choice that I would recommend would be one that opens up a conversation rather than sticking to discrete changes in behavior. I would encourage you to use this situation as a learning opportunity for you and your supervisor. When you approach your boss about the situation, make sure you couch the conversation as a positive discussion about how you use your technology to improve your efficiency in the workplace. This may be an opportunity to learn how she manages her projects and communicates during meetings. Conversely, it may also open up a conversation where you can teach your boss about a new technology or skill you implement in the workplace.

“Also, keep in mind that your boss may not be the only person impacted by your behavior. Other people, including firm managing partners or deans, may be in meetings where it appears you are distracted by your electrical device rather than engaging in the discussion. So when you are using your smart phone or electrical device in meetings, be mindful of the impact or appearance that you are having on the other meeting attendees. Always heed the meeting rules, which may or may not set guidelines for using technology during meetings. If there are no clear rules established at the beginning of the meeting, I would suggest specifically asking about smart phones and laptop use. I’m sure those who don’t want them to be used will be vocal in their responses. 

“In any meeting, I would encourage you to first listen to the conversation, add your valuable points respectfully, and then, when you are ready to pull out your smart phone, expressly comment why you’re using it. For example, a simple ‘Let me check my schedule on my phone,’ or ‘Does anyone mind if I take notes on my phone? I’ll be happy to email them out to the group afterwards?’ clears any ambiguity in the situation. By explaining to your colleagues the rationale behind using the device, you open the door to many other opportunities.

“And last, in my opinion, it doesn’t matter to which generation you belong; it is generally rude to stick your nose in a smart phone or mobile device without acknowledging the action rather than actively engaging in any conversation. More than anything, though, keep in mind technology can be intimidating to people, so try to keep it fun, exciting, and an opportunity to share ideas!”

This isn’t the first time I’ve turned to Liz for her point of view. I appreciate her emphasis on open communication. Please take her advice to heart. I would like to hear how others are incorporating technology into the workplace and are engaging in learning and teaching between staff on technology issues. Let’s continue this discussion because I would love to hear what kinds of conversations are being had between generations on technology and staff relations. We are all learning from one another.

~Susan Catterall~

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