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Laptop Etiquette: Laptops in meetings. Distraction or efficiency tool?

Laptop etiquette

I know this may appear rude, but I want to get something out of this meeting!

Laptop Etiquette

What is the etiquette when it comes to typing on laptops in meetings? I have some personal ideas and practices that I will share below, but frankly, I don’t know what is right or wrong. I want to ask you, the reader what your thoughts are when it comes to laptops in meetings.

My questions are along the lines of the following:

  • Is it OK to pull out a laptop and start hammering out notes during a meeting?
  • Does other meeting members think I am working on email, surfing porn, or having a Skype chat?
  • Will I be a distraction?
  • Do I lose respect if I am in a room of senior managers because they suspect I may not be paying attention to the meeting at hand? (Just because I am writing this post during our 2015 planning, doesn’t mean I can’t multitask.)

I take it everywhere

I take a lot of notes on my laptop. I used personal funds to buy my work machine so I could have the slimmest MacBook Air they make and literally take it everywhere I go. Mrs. Nasty doesn’t appreciate its portability because I end up taking it to the local diner on our Wednesday Date nights, where I am trying to wrap up the weekly blog post to be released on Thursday. She is trying to carry on a conversation as I type. I do take it everywhere!

Here is my laptop etiquette quandary:

When I meet with younger generations, taking notes on a laptop is standard procedure. This is a generation that attended high school and college where laptops are required. Taking notes on this platform is nothing new for this generation.

Moleskin vs. Laptop

When I meet with peers a generation or two older than myself, I make it a habit to pull out a small Moleskin notebook and a pen because, well. . . . I literally want the listener to see me jotting down notes. I would take notes on a laptop but it seems to be more of a distraction than a tool of efficiency with this demographic.

Call me paranoid, but I get the feeling that this generation filled with senior managers looks down on my laptop.  Do they think I am surfing porn or chatting with my buddies about the weekend?  

I get it. With the screen portion of the laptop acting as a subconscious barrier, the other party has no idea of what I am doing. The stereotype of the cell phone user texting at inappropriate times is burned in everyone’s retina. Whether that means taking care of a Number 2 or church, 24/7 connectivity for some is a “must have”, not a “nice to have”. Tinder, Facebook, Skype, Twitter, and Ello are all part of the new mantra, “I gotta keep connected Yo!” (You can find me on Skype at HRNasty, Ello at HRNasty and Twitter at @HR_Nasty.)

I take notes because I want to remember what was discussed and more importantly, I want them to have confidence that I have will have my house in order at the end of our conversation. I want the speaker to see that I find value in what is being shared with me. Whether I am taking notes on a laptop or in a Moleskin, at the end of meetings I try to make it a point to read and confirm any follow-ups that I am responsible for. Yes, there is a bit of show here, but I not only want to remember what was said, I want the listener to walk away from the meeting thinking “My Boy Nasty got his shit in order”.

When I go to a meeting and I don’t see anyone taking notes, I get nervous that some of the “follow-ups” will become “forgotten let-me-downs”. When I work with clients to practice mock interviews, there are times where the person I am working with isn’t taking any notes. It’s not that what I have to say is so important, but I can’t help but wonder “Are they going to remember all this stuff?” As the consultant in these situations, even I am taking notes and I am the one with the so-called knowledge. I wonder if they are going to remember what we are discussing and, I don’t want to leave anyone with that type of impression.      

A few weeks ago, I attended a roundtable with 14 other execs. The guest speaker was Spencer Rascoff, CEO of Zillow and the main topic of discussion was Building a Great Workplace. Zillow is a great company in anyone’s book, but here in Seattle where Zillow has over 240 job openings with no end in sight, this guy walks on water. Spencer is a Harvard grad, smart, articulate and has left a number of successful exits in his wake. Zillow was a Gold Place Finisher in their category Best Workplaces in our local area and a topic I blogged about a few weeks back. Based on what he talked about, Zillow has some great things going on and I really appreciate his attitude towards company culture.

Here’s the thing. I brought my laptop fully intending to take notes. Not just take notes, but take a LOT OF NOTES. I wanted to leave that session with an Illiad’s worth of ideas on management, culture and then raise the game here at Acme Publishing. This roundtable was held in a swanky golf course club just down the street from Bill Gates estate and when I went to sit down, I saw a pen, pad of paper and pad of stickies with the golf course logo at every seat. My first thought was. . . ok, no laptops. Very clear message.  

I work in a tech start-up and most start-up junkies look down on writing anything on paper. Writing notes on paper, only to be converted to email, Google Docs or Word to be shared later means extra steps and more importantly “TIME”. A priceless commodity when you are working with a company that is worried about a burn rate. Why not take the notes directly into email or Google Docs where outline format is a standard option? There are so many applications that enable documents to be shared with others or synced to your mobile and desktop devices that it really makes more sense to take notes electronically.

As I looked around, I was the only person with a laptop. Is it just me, or are we not listening to T-H-E Spencer Rascoff? There was one person with an iPad, but again, they are “writing stuff down” with an electronic stylus. Most of us can type 60 to 100 words a minute. I came here to learn and I want to get some shit down. There is no way I am not going to remember everything a Harvard grad running a billion dollar company has to say. I need to take notes at ludicrous speed and I don’t want to use the crappy golf course ballpoint pen. This pen was just one step up from the yellow stub of a no. 2 that they hand out on the putt-putt golf course to keep your score.  

I literally felt at odds about pulling out my laptop and in the end, I went for it.

I had the same experience when I went to my motorcycle endorsement class a year ago. I wasn’t just the only guy with a laptop, I was the only guy taking notes! (Last I checked, the topic of rider safety is worthy of some note taking!) I remember walking through the door and the guy behind me saying “Were we supposed to bring something to take notes with?” I literally brought a pad of paper, two pens, and a laptop. I am proud to say I passed and the guy who was wondering about notes, he actually flunked out. I don’t know if there is a lesson there or not, but I am now commuting to work at 50 miles to the gallon and in the HOV lane in a city that makes the top 10 worst traffic list every year. BoooYahhhhh! 

I just went to a local HR conference and experienced the same thing. There were very few laptops. There were a lot of folks taking notes with pen and pad, but very few laptops. I don’t know if this trend is saying something about me, or it is saying something about the people I am hanging out with.

I understand that it may appear rude to be on a laptop in a meeting. But taking notes with a writing utensil and a pad of paper harkens back to the corporate life in the 1950’s when there was a note taker in the room who knew “shorthand”. 

So help me, what is your thought on taking notes on a laptop and being a possible distraction in a meeting, conference, or retreat? Leave our feedback in the comments below. 

See you at the after party,

nasty: an unreal maneuver of incredible technique, something that is ridiculously good, tricky and manipulative but with a result that can’t help but be admired, a phrase used to describe someone who is good at something. “He has a nasty forkball”.

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  • gander2112

    Tough one. My thinking on this has evolved, and I am at a point where I do not do it. At all.

    The reasons for why I got here are interesting in their own rights, but in summary, it is because I see a lot of bad behavior. Case in point:

    Our engineering lead has a habit of opening her laptop. It is clear that she isn’t taking notes, but instead doing emails. It doesn’t matter. Weekly cross functional meeting (she is the sponsor of) – doing emails. every third week Senior Staff meeting – she is doing emails. Bugs me to no end, as we often have to backtrack and revisit topics because she has her head in a cloud.

    The other reason is that while I can type fast, I find that when I do that, I am not actually thinking. It is instinct, and my mind misses the subtext. This is probably a “me” thing, and part of how I learn (pretty sure I picked this up in my undergrad physics degree – learning by writing it down.) So if I am on a computer during a meeting, I may be typing notes, but I am certainly missing huge parts of the conversation, even though I am transcribing it. Conversely, when I am participating, I have huge holes in my notes.

    Lastly, in our global, connected environment, I do a lot of meetings by webex. The temptation to multitask, and to do other things is too great. I have to force myself to keep the webex in focus, and to not do emails or other tasks behind the scenes. This takes a LOT of concentration.

    My rule for in-person meetings is I have a lab notebook, and I write salient notes in it. I try to summarize meetings post facto, and I make sure to capture actions. On paper.

    • Gander, thanks for stopping by and as always, you bring great perspective. I do appreciate your philosophy about the ability to type fast and “missing huge parts of the conversation”. There is a lot to be said about non verbal communication and keeping eye contact as a few others have mentioned. As the votes come in, I am glad I posted the topic. I myself will be revisiting this topic for myself personally and will be stocking up on Moleskins. Thanks as always and have a great holicay, HRN

  • Timely post, the audience is definitely a key factor but also the size of the device! I recently attended a meeting where someone will pull out a 17″ Laptop and then quickly vanished from sight, with no contribution to the direction of the conversation. Online notes save time and have numerous advantages over their paper based peers, so soon using them will likely become standard practice.

    • Chris, thanks for your comments. I think you are right, maybe we are just a little ahead of our time. 🙂 Yes, I completely agree the size of the advice (especially in this day and age makes a difference). If we are going to take notes, contributing to the conversation is the least we can do. We are obviously taking something away from the meeting, we should bring something to the table. Thank you!

  • Larry McKeogh

    I go both ways. I’ve got the little moleskin notebook. Sometimes it is a good reference. I mainly use it to make note of something that I want to remember. The physical act of writing it out and seeing it on paper helps me remember. I often don’t refer back to the note now that it is imprinted in my mind. These notes also tend to be on topics that are pretty close at hand and I don’t have to reach to far (e.g. time, mental distance) for that memory.

    Customer interviews I’ll have pen and paper but I’ll also electronically record the interview. I don’t want to miss a sneeze from this conversation. With the recording capturing everything the other party has my undivided attention. The paper is to note times of something interesting. I’ll go back and listen to the recording at some point. Some I even transcribe verbatim. I pay special attention to the times noted to see if I can recapture or glean anything more from this.

    Other times, like your round table I will have the laptop or electronic recording mechanism out. I want to take copious notes as well and I want to be able to search them at some point in the distant future. I’ve got conference notes circa 2010 that surface about once a year. These notes are fertile eggs waiting to be pulled from the freezer for some time in a petri dish when the moment is right. In that situation it is less 1:1 or 1:few but 1:many. The leader cares less about the individual connection.

    I think ultimately it is how engaged you are in the conversation. People know when you are there or not. If you are not watching, not interacting, questions have to be repeated to you or your name is called 2x give up the ruse. You’re just a warm body using oxygen. If you’re contributing but tapping away kudos to you.

    Now to really confuse you, I will state that the laptop out during the interview is unsettling. The screen creates a barrier that some hide behind. I’ve taken time out of my day to give some company my undivided attention. I’d expect the same in return. The email distraction is too tempting or the errant IM that only takes a second to reply to. Just don’t go there IMO.

    In the end, be yourself. If you do get caught doodling or IM-ing don’t be surprised when someone calls you on it though.

    • Dude, all great points, and I really like your point about the interview. Laptops in the interview for both candidate and interviewer was going to be the original post and I got carried away. Thanks for bringing this back on track and I absolutely agree with you. The candidate is a “guest” in our house and we should treat them as such. Candidates took time out of their day to visit us, we should do everything we can to make them feel welcome. Thank you!

  • Allison

    I agree it’s important to know your audience – or in this case, whom you’re meeting with. One factor to consider is your report with the people you’re meeting with, especially the one running the meeting. If you’re someone they trust to be attentive and focused, and do what needs to be done after the meeting, then I doubt anyone would care if you took notes on a laptop. If you’re new or someone known for being a slacker, or missing deadlines or forgetting important details discussed in the meeting, people may doubt that you’re really paying attention.

    Above all, it’s important to act engaged. Making eye contact with the speaker, rather than continuously staring at the screen, makes a big difference.

    When in doubt, take both a laptop and a notepad, make an assessment based on who else is there and what others are using to take notes, and use whichever seems more appropriate.

    • Allison,
      Thank you for your comments. I didn’t even mention the fact that we should be engaged with eye contact and body language. So true and lesson well taken. “When in doubt, take a laptop and a notepad”. Great advice, thank you!