Most people feel naked if they leave home without their trusty smartphone by their side nowadays. Indeed, our phones have enriched our lives in a multitude of ways, but they also serve as a psychological anchor. Even during a typical workday, you would be hard-pressed to find a modern employee who doesn’t compulsively check their phone at least once or twice per hour. Many can’t help but check their phone every five or ten minutes or so.
Now, when someone is “on the clock” they’re supposed to be fully focused on their professional responsibilities, but we all know that never happens. No one is capable of maintaining 100% focus 100% of the time; all of our minds wander. That being said, there’s perhaps no bigger proverbial billboard one can project to tell their manager they’re not working than blatantly scrolling on one’s phone.
With all this in mind, a new study from the University of Kansas has a big piece of advice for anyone looking to make a positive first impression during a business meeting or conference. Simply put, keep your phone in your pocket. Researchers found that there’s no quicker way to immediately convey to the person or people you’re meeting that you don’t care about them or what they have to say than taking out a smartphone.
Maybe this sounds like fairly obvious advice, but smartphone “phubbing,” or the practice of ignoring someone in real life in favor of a phone, is something that happens constantly in every walk of life. Even today, with millions working from home and holding meetings via video conferences, many employees still can’t stop themselves from browsing on their phones while on a video chat. It may seem like a harmless way to kill extra time in the moment, but ignoring professional colleagues, clients, or superiors for one’s phone can do serious damage to a career.
For the study, researchers created several video vignettes depicting people using either a notebook (remember those?), a laptop, or a smartphone while attending a business meeting. Then, a group of 243 participants was asked to rate each meeting member’s effectiveness and competence during their meeting.
Each video was a little different than the others. For example, sometimes the employee in the vignette would apologize for using his or her phone, or say they were using their phone for work-related note-taking, etc. However, none of that seemed to matter to the participants told to judge employees’ competence. Across the board, people who took their phones out for any reason during the meeting were ranked as less competent and effective in comparison to people who used a notebook or laptop.
The study’s authors say their findings can be traced back to a phenomenon of human nature known as “introspective illusion.” Essentially, this means that despite it being quite possible for smartphones to aid in professional work or note-taking, pretty much everyone assumes other people are playing games or scrolling through social media whenever they see someone else staring at a phone.
So, imagine yourself in an important meeting. You take out your iPhone to take some notes and assume that everyone around you will recognize that you’re simply professionally using your phone. But, at the same time, when a colleague takes their smartphone out to take notes as well, you will probably assume they’re checking Instagram or playing a game.
“We can always infer our own thoughts and motives, but we can’t ever know a partner’s thoughts and motives, so we make negative assumptions about others, and we make excuses for ourselves,” explains study author Cameron W. Piercy, Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at the UK, in a university release.
In line with this theory, even when the people in the video vignettes apologized for using their phone, participants still rated them just as harshly as others.
“People expect that technology is used for ill, even when the person using the technology says their use is related to the topic of conversation,” Piercy adds.
It’s worth mentioning, though, that if a manager in a vignette flat out said that cell phone use is allowed or even encouraged during the meeting, workers using their phones in these scenarios weren’t rated quite as bad as others.
“When the manager articulated a policy, those who acknowledged their multi communication were evaluated higher and seen as more competent,” the study reads. “In the absence of a policy, the pattern is reversed. Finally, the means for communicator evaluation and competence were highest in the pro-technology policy condition. In all, when the manager’s policy is matched by employee’s behavior, outcome means tend to be higher.”
“The manager articulating a clear policy about expectations of technology use ought to affect the way that people engage with technology in the workplace,” Piercy says. “But so is the idea that people would be excused if they apologize for using technology. And in that case, we didn’t find a significant effect.”
Still, all in all, the results of this research make a strong argument that it’s never a good idea to use your cell phone during a business meeting. Especially if it’s the first time you’re getting together with someone in a professional setting.
“The effect for the phone is ginormous,” Piercy concludes. “It’s as big an effect as you’ll ever see in a social-science study — 30% of the variance. You can just look at the numbers and see it. But the notebook was less of a problem than the computer, which was less of a problem than the phone. So even if you were to use a laptop in the meeting, you’d be better off than using your phone because there was this big spike in all the numbers that are associated with using the phone, relative to the other two.”
The full study can be found here, published in Mobile Media & Communication.