Take a Look Around

At your next business meeting, take a look around. Forget the impersonal conference room, the digital TV on the wall that no one can sync to their laptops, and the starfish conference phone in the middle of the table that people talk at like it’s an aging grandparent. You don’t even have to hide your eyes as you scan the room, because few people, if anyone, will be watching you.

Your coworkers will be on their smartphones and laptops doing other stuff. Like texting their wives, shopping for high heels, or buying airline tickets for that golf trip in South Carolina. All while everyone is in the middle of a meeting. Look around, and you’ll see a bus stop, or a train station, full of idle people trying to pass the time. Except they’re all at work. With you. Getting paid. It’s a scene that occurs in countless meetings and conference rooms all across America, and the world. It’s a problem. But is it an HR problem?

The Normalization of Digital Addiction

There was a day when people in business meetings at least tried. They pretended to take notes on their laptop about the important points of the agenda, or perhaps—as the speaker gesticulated through a PowerPoint presentation—faked to research something relevant to the topic so they could ask an informed question later. Nope. Not anymore. The idea of even feigning interest in a meeting is as arcane as believing that reaching for your wallet means you intend to pay for the bill. It’s all bullshit. But on a new level. And its widespread acceptance is astounding.

Poor meeting etiquette has become so normalized in modern workplaces that is must eventually hit a saturation point—that degree of absurdity when someone, somewhere, finally acknowledges the problem and becomes proactive about putting a stop to it. The question is, who? After all, how do you tell adults to stop behaving like children? How do you tell a 39-year-old man to stop playing with his phone and look at the front of room? Hmm. When all else fails to implore adults not to act like children, HR must get involved.


The HR Creep Factor

Let’s face it, not many employers or employees like it when HR has to get involved with anything. Unless HR is educating employees about the wonderful health care access they’re entitled to, the involvement of HR with anything is considered an unwelcome presence—from the pedantic “Clean the microwave” and “All food in the fridge will be thrown out on Friday” edicts in the kitchen to more serious behavioral problems at the workplace, including discrimination and sexual harassment.

However, as technology evolves and drives human behavior in different directions – both good and bad – the workplace will have to adjust, which means HR must evolve, too. HR mission creep is not new. Ever since the first HR department was formed, those in the industry have long understood that people are complex animals, and putting a bunch of those animals into the same building, or on the same floor, or in the same room will invariably result in conflict, usually on multiple levels.

It’s true that HR is there to protect the interest of the company, but it is also true that without the company those employees wouldn’t have jobs at the company. HR has been at the front lines of this intersection of mutually aligned and competing interests from the very beginning, and has helped onboard societal progress such as equal rights initiatives and technological advancements like the Internet and, yes, the kitchen microwave.

Should HR Step In?

So, should HR make and enforce policies regarding the use of digital devices and technology in the workplace? Does HR belong in meetings where employee behavior has reached a level of astounding unprofessionalism? Is it too late to regulate the integration of technology into every aspect, if not every minute, of our professional and personal lives?

In short, should HR overtly mitigate digital addiction in work meetings?

Answer: Yes. Hell freaking yes. If HR is forced to convince grown ups that they should clean up after themselves in the kitchen and not—even more infuriating—sully the bathroom stalls with graffiti or try to flush paper towels down a toilet, then HR is certainly within its jurisdiction to compel grown men and women not to behave like spoiled children who don’t want to do their homework and play video games instead.

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