Workzone: Cell phones at meetings slowly gaining acceptance

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At modern business meetings, there are likely to be as many mobile devices on the conference table as there are bodies around it. Sometimes the digital outnumbers the human and, according to research from the University of Southern California, how you feel about that depends on your age and gender.

The study, which surveyed 550 professionals, revealed that men were far more likely than women to consider texting, writing emails and answering the phone appropriate during meetings.

An even starker barrier materialized across generations. More than half of the workers between 21 and 30 thought it was acceptable to check texts and emails during formal business meetings, while fewer than 20 percent of 51- to 65-year-olds thought the same.

The distinction is important because it’s often the latter group that decides when the former will get promoted.

But change is in the air, at least at Downtown accounting firm Herbein + Co.

Three years ago, if Beth Bershok, the firm’s regional marketing manager, saw someone texting during a business meeting, she would have thought they were rude.

“Now it’s become a way to get things done during our meetings,” she said.

In 2012, in an effort to promote a paperless office, the company gifted all its senior managers with iPads. Agendas are downloaded, calendars are consulted, notes are tapped into a tablet.

“What I do still find disrespectful — but it’s hard to figure out if that’s happening sometimes — is if they’re checking email” or Facebook, or texting with a personal contact, she said.

But since it’s difficult to parse the personal from the professional in that situation, it isn’t cause for that much concern.

“Now, in some ways, you can use it to your advantage,” Ms. Bershok said, as she did in a recent committee meeting for an awards ceremony where one of the agenda items was to spread the word about ticket sales. With a few clicks on a few cell phones, tweets rang out announcing the news before the meeting closed.

That wisdom has yet to catch on at Monongahela Valley Hospital, where cell phone calls during quarterly leadership meetings get poultry treatment.

For more than four years, whoever bears the ringing cell phone must go before the crowd of 160 hospital leaders and do the chicken dance.

“First, they take the call,” assured Corinne Laboon, vice president of marketing with the hospital. “Because we are at a hospital and we have to know what’s going on with the care that we’re providing to our patients at all times, it’s necessary that we are going to have interruptions with texts and phone calls.”

So a medical professional who gets a call during the quarterly session is supposed to step outside the meeting room, attend to the matter, then return to the hall where a stuffed chicken will be activated into song and dance accordingly.

It’s not a disciplinary action, Ms. Laboon said. It’s just fun.

Anya Litvak: or 412-263-1455.

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