Office caution: Mind manners, not gadgets

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Using your cell phone and other hand-held electronics in a movie theater or a restaurant booth can be construed as rude behavior - that's why many businesses forbid it. Now even workplaces are echoing a similar refrain: Mind your technology manners.

More companies are banning the use of BlackBerry devices, mobile phones and other portable technology in company and client meetings to better ensure that customers, clients and even bosses receive a worker's undivided attention.

Other employers are enforcing strict rules on workers using instant messaging and iPods in the office - a growing trend now that younger employees who grew up with the technology are entering the work force in greater numbers. And some are providing etiquette training on the finer points of the do's and don'ts.

Offenders insist that they're just multi-tasking in a business world that requires their constant attention. But the hope is to cut down on a familiar scene played out in offices worldwide: preoccupied managers and workers thumbing through hand-held devices in meetings or taking cell phone calls at business lunches.

J.J. Finkelstein of RegeneRX Biopharmaceuticals in Bethesda was so fed up with the distractions that he ordered changes. Executives posted a sign on a conference room door: "No phone zone. Check your cell phones and crackberries at the door, or they will be confiscated."

"So many people would come to the meeting and have their BlackBerry turned on and constantly fiddle with it while they're talking or you're talking," said Finkelstein, the company's president and chief executive officer. "It's hard to stay focused, and it's clearly rude. More than once, people have gotten annoyed."

Finkelstein said the sign is intended as a humorous way to combat the inappropriate behavior - and he hasn't had to take anything away yet.

Having appropriate technology etiquette promotes professionalism and reduces misunderstandings with customers and colleagues, workplace experts and employers say. Otherwise, poor technology manners just leave a bad impression.

Melissa Maffettone, branch manager of the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., office of the Robert Half Technology staffing firm, recalls recently dismissing a job candidate who kept glancing at his BlackBerry while she spoke with him.

"When you're an interviewer, you're looking for somebody who wants to find a job," she said. "It's a nonverbal indicator of what's to come. I was very polite and professional and told him, 'Obviously, this is not your top priority. My time is very valuable to me. I don't feel as if it's as important to you as it is to me.'"

Peter Post, director of the Emily Post Institute and an author of The Etiquette Advantage of Business, said people don't intentionally use their cell phones or gadgets to be rude. But many get lost in their work - or the technology - and often ignore their surroundings.

"They don't think about how it affects other people," said Post, who has been giving more seminars on technology etiquette in the workplace.

At Enterprise Rent-a-Car, more regional managers are giving lessons in cell phone etiquette to entry-level employees as part of their customer service training. Clearly prohibited: Workers answering their cell phones while helping a customer.

The growth in providing lessons has come in the past two years as cell phones have increasingly become the primary communications tool for Enterprise workers, said spokeswoman Lisa Martini.

This month, Deussen Global Communications, a marketing and public relations firm in New York, established guidelines for "21st century common courtesy." The list includes no BlackBerry or texting in meetings and requires employees to set cell phones on vibrate mode in meetings and in the office.

For clients, the firm created a slide presentation that resembles the "Shh, please silence your cell phones and pagers" announcement at movie theaters.

"We're all trying to do our jobs and want to do the best work for our clients. It's better if we have their complete attention," said Theresa Bertrand, an account supervisor at Deussen. "I think they appreciate it."

Employers, workers and management experts agree that technology such as e-mail, cell phones and portable devices has helped them communicate faster and increase productivity. But over time, some employers and workplace experts argue, technology has gotten one step ahead of its users.

About two-thirds of 1,400 chief information officers surveyed by Robert Half Technology in 2004 said violations in "tech etiquette" are increasing. Leaving a cell phone ringer on and sending instant messages and e-mails in meetings were among the top technology-related pet peeves, according to the survey.

Scott Testa, chief operating officer of Mindbridge Software, an intranet software firm in Norristown, Pa., has witnessed this scene one too many times: Employees excusing themselves from meetings to answer their cell phones or playing with their personal digital assistants instead of paying attention.

As a result, the firm implemented a policy in the past year to prevent similar episodes. Employees are not allowed to bring any portable device into meetings.

"I could remember in the mid-'90s, cell phones were so big and to carry it around was a pain," Testa said.

Employers say their reasons for pushing proper tech etiquette go beyond creating a polite workplace. It is also about presenting the right image or message about the company and its workers to customers. For example, a client can perceive an employee who is constantly glancing at a BlackBerry during a sales pitch as disrespectful.

And in many instances, somebody's multi-tasking is another's distraction, workplace experts say. Employers say that disruptions caused by ringing cell phones and BlackBerry users not paying attention in meetings cut down on productivity.

"In most cases, you're not paying adequate attention to any single thing," said David Fagiano, chief operating officer at Dale Carnegie Training, a global management and workplace training company. "It's not a productivity enhancement. It decreases productivity because you have to redo work."

Executives at Buehler Food Markets, an independent grocer with 12 stores in northern Ohio, revised the employee handbook three years ago to include a section on cell phone etiquette. Workers are prohibited from using their cell phones when helping customers, said Rick Lowe, the company's vice president of human resources.

The handbook was revised to address growing instances of workers taking cell phone calls while on the job, Lowe said.

"When our customers shop in our stores, they deserve our undivided attention," he said.

Shohreh Kaynama, dean of Towson University's College of Business and Economics, said workers feel so much pressure to stay connected on and off the job that they have their cell phones and other devices with them wherever they are.

"It used to be doctors were the only ones on call," said Kaynama, who does not allow cell phones and other mobile devices in faculty and staff meetings. "Now, everyone's on call."

Still, some employees do have legitimate work reasons to answer that cell phone call or text message in meetings or client lunches.

Larry Fiorino, chief executive of G1440, a Baltimore-based information technology firm, has a Treo, a hand-held smart phone, with him at all times. He is also mindful of the etiquette involved with using the Treo. He lets his colleagues or clients know before a meeting starts that he is expecting an important call.

"I find business people to be very understanding," he said. "It's a 15-30 second departure from the meeting."

His technology pet peeve is instant messaging, a feature that his employees use frequently to communicate with each other in the Baltimore office and remotely.

"I've been in meetings with someone where their IM would pop up, and I have asked them to turn it off," Fiorino said. "I ask my [employees], 'Are you sure it's helping you because it was a huge pain in the butt for me.'"

hanah.cho@baltsun.com

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