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I have an employee at a mid-size IT startup who is texting during our Daily Standup meetings. It's just a text or two at a time, but it's obviously personal. They get emotionally aroused, tune out of the meeting, it's visible to others, and has been going on for 3 weeks without a miss.

I'm fine with people doing personal things at work, but want to avoid this during the few windows when we're supposed to engage each other as a team.

It's easy to ban phones in just this 10-minute meeting. In most, I'm fine with phone use. I want the delineation to be work use vs non-work use. To keep phones and laptops available for meeting-relevant work, but limit personal conversations to when one is alone.

What would be the softest, least embarrassing way to ask an employee to avoid personal (not all) texting during meetings?

The options I've considered include:

  • Discussing group norms without singling anyone out. My concern is that it would be obvious who it's about.
  • Mentioning this "casually". I'm worried that it might feel like I'm intruding into their personal life (I know their texting is an office romance, but don't want to bring it out).
  • Asking them not to use the phone during meetings at all. My concern is that this feels rigid and is a use of direct power, which I try to avoid. It would also be singling them out.

I don't want to restrict cell phones as tools, only their use for entertainment, and only when it's important to be engaged in the work. We do check them in meetings for work reasons, like looking up the calendar.

I'm not the employee's line manager, which I'm still hiring, and don't work with them much. Still, as the ranking company officer that's actually in the office, it falls to me.

This is complicated by high power distance, patriarchal culture the employee grew up in. Even a single embarrassing conversation could damage their self-esteem that's been difficult to build up.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Kilisi
    Aug 4 at 8:24
  • Can you give some sense of the culture of the employee and that of the location for the company office? That might get you some cultural specific answers that will help with your concerns about not damaging their self-esteem. Aug 4 at 12:23
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    @CTeegarden Explained it in chat (linked above)
    – HK-51
    Aug 4 at 14:11

12 Answers 12

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As a former Scrum Master, I would just do this privately. Doing it in public during a sprint review or something similar can a) be considered to be criticizing in public (especially when everyone knows who it is really about) while also b) being a very indirect way without any seriousness attached. It’s normal to expect someone to be focused at work, ESPECIALLY during a 10 minute meeting. Don’t be afraid to come across too harshly if you just take it private, because honestly it warrants some harshness (even though the soft approach is better to try first)

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    Why is "criticizing in public" bad?
    – pgibbons
    Aug 4 at 8:27
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    @pgibbons because it can be seen as an attack, might deteriorate the relationships with this employee's coworkers, and it brings nothing good to the table (except if others are also to be told not to use their phones) Aug 4 at 8:29
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    Further to this one, even if everyone in the room understands exactly who the comment is directed at, the actual target may remain oblivious. Some people do this sort of stuff out of habit, and don't realise just how badly addicted they are.
    – Shadow
    Aug 4 at 23:48
  • @pgibbons People naturally don't want to look bad publicly. If you're not concerned about how you make them feel, consider the pragmatics of following the adage "praise in public, criticize in private" - you won't make enemies that are motivated to make you unhappy. Aug 5 at 21:03
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    What I ended up doing was this - except I did delegate it to the Scrum Master to take care of the most active phone users. He doesn't have the knowledge of private matters that I do, so we sidestepped that problem.
    – HK-51
    Aug 6 at 11:15
73

I'd go with this:

Mentioning this "casually". I'm worried that it might feel like I'm intruding into their personal life

Have a word with them privately and say that you need them to focus on the meeting and that means reading/sending personal texts can wait 10 minutes. This isn't unreasonable since personal matters excepting a genuine emergency can wait that 10 minutes. And any genuine emergency isn't going to be happening over and over at your stand up times.

That's not "intruding" into their personal life - it's having a perfectly appropriate discussion about their professional one

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    People are supposed to be working and on the clock. If they are not, then be sure they are charging their time elsewhere, not to your project.
    – Tony Ennis
    Aug 3 at 19:35
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    Does your manager uses whips too? @TonyEnnis
    – ILoveKebab
    Aug 4 at 10:13
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    I'd not even start this way - I'd ask if everything is OK?? It could be anything. Then based on the information I'd perhaps comment that they should not use their phone in the meeting. Support first, then advise.
    – John Hunt
    Aug 4 at 15:15
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    @ILoveKebab I am the manager. I don't have to beat the staff - I treat them like adults. If I want something, I ask. If someone isn't present because they are distracted then they need to get in line. Motosubatsu has it right.
    – Tony Ennis
    Aug 4 at 16:03
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    personal matters excepting a genuine emergency can wait that 10 minutes. And any genuine emergency isn't going to be happening over and over at your stand up times. I would be careful about this assumption. I have personally known excellent associates who are working through serious medical issues or who act as a caretaker of a family member with health issues. There will always be those who abuse certain freedoms but I wouldn't be so quick to assume that everyone fits in this category.
    – DanK
    Aug 5 at 14:00
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We used to have a problem with a guy who always put his phone on the table and looked at it, expecting it to ring. If it did he'd answer, and say "This is important" and leave the room. Great, our meeting is not important.

I suggested we ban phones in stand-ups, which we then did. No interruptions, and people are quicker to finish up and go.

We added an exception for people who were expecting e.g. the birth of a baby, they were allowed to bring phones if they excused themselves beforehand.

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    +1 for "people are quicker to finish up and go." This is a good reason to implement the rule. It aves time for everyone and doesn't single out one person
    – Hilmar
    Aug 3 at 11:59
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    @HK-51: You know the phrase "locks keep honest people honest"? You can't change how people use their phones. You can't magically make easily distracted people become focused people. But you can help them keep focused by removing things that make it easy to get distracted. You can't change them, but you can change the environment.
    – Heinzi
    Aug 3 at 18:01
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    @HK-51 You are focussing on the wrong thing. Banning phones in standup is the way to go. If you want to sort out personal versus work communication do it separately. It's only ten minutes for Pete's sake. If your team cannot ignore their phones for that long they are not behaving like adults. Aug 3 at 20:33
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    recently our management added posters to each meeting room with rules of decent behavior. one of rules is "phone off" :) Aug 4 at 9:19
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    "We used to have a problem with a guy who always put his phone on the table and looked at it, expecting it to ring. If it did he'd answer, and say "This is important" and leave the room." Why not have someone in the meeting secretly call him, then when he's out of the meeting, ask him to please come back into the important meeting 😁 Aug 4 at 13:52
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Slight frame challenge:

You are doing this person no favors in the career development process by continuing to allow this to slide. What they are doing is, quite simply, rude. While you may have patience and not want to hurt their feelings or de-empower them, many managers won't. I would speak to them in private and be direct. One gentle way to put this might be:

"Hey [name], I need to talk to you about something. I don't want you to get upset or worry about it, because this is completely off the record and just between me and you. You really need to not be texting during meetings. It's unprofessional and disrespectful to the other people in the meeting."

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    If desired, this can be softened a little with wording like "this can come across as disrespectful". Focussing on the perception created can sometimes be more productive since it reduces the urge to get defensive ("but I do respect you!") while still acknowledging the need to change the behaviour. Aug 3 at 23:58
  • That's a good argument. Most managers of the kind that don't care about feelings, simply won't notice, though ;) I come from a psychology background, so it's my habit of paying close attention to others' emotions that might be a bit out of place here too.
    – HK-51
    Aug 4 at 14:16
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    I wouldn't lead with "I don't want you to get upset or worry about it" - I know a number of people who would just ignore anything you say after that. First, make the point about not texting. Then if they start to get upset you can reassure them that it is off-the-record at the moment ( but remember it might need to escalate if they keep doing it)
    – Dragonel
    Aug 4 at 15:45
  • @Dragonel While I agree that phrasing isn't for everyone, I was wording it for this specific case where the employee seems to have self-esteem issues and isn't the type you are worried about disregarding the message
    – Kevin
    Aug 4 at 18:29
  • +1 but I would probably discuss the problem a little more generally than "don't text at meetings". They need to pay attention to what is going on in the daily stand-ups, not just refrain from being rude by texting during them.
    – ColleenV
    Aug 5 at 13:43
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I'm going to take a different approach and ask why a team member is able to look at their phone and not be engaged with the stand-up if it is only 10 minutes. The things people are saying should be highly relevant to everyone at the stand-up and their planned work for the day. If they aren't, you may need to break up into smaller teams and have multiple stand-ups.

If someone isn't engaged with a meeting I am running, I ask them a question about the current conversation. A simple "What do you think?" is often all that's necessary to shift their focus to where it should be. If they do have an urgent personal matter, encourage them to go give it their full attention and not worry about the meeting. Stuff happens, and it’s just a daily stand-up. It’s better to have everyone there fully engaged than have everyone there. Do not just ignore team members that are ignoring the meeting.

The team could agree on a "phones in pockets or left on desks" rule that would let people stay available while reducing the temptation. There's simply no excuse to be looking at a phone during a standup. Put a calendar on the wall. Have your current set of issues up on a screen for people to refer to. Everyone should be looking at the same thing so the team can collaborate more effectively. It is a completely different dynamic if everyone is gathered around a piece of paper taped to the wall versus everyone looking at a document on their phone. It's worth the hassle to get people looking at each other and pointing to stuff. People leave the meeting more energized in my experience.

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    -1 do not like the suggestion of a technique that's indirect, passive-aggressive, likely may fail to communicate the actual issue, and also interrupt the rest of the meeting flow. Smacks of elementary school. Aug 4 at 2:48
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    @DanielR.Collins Re-reading what I wrote, I understand how it could come across that way. I’ll look at adding some more words: I was attempting to multitask and not doing it well. :) I don’t think confronting someone who is being rude is passive-aggressive. The problem is not their phone. The problem is their lack of engagement with the team and the meeting. The easiest way to get someone to pay attention to a meeting is to engage with them. Maybe the way I wrote the examples of what to say rubbed some the wrong way… it’s a bit terse and not really the tone I intended to convey.
    – ColleenV
    Aug 4 at 7:08
  • It's possible to ignore a meeting even if it's relevant and important. Plenty of people are able to avoid paying attention to things they need to know. There are people you could tell "The earth is about to be destroyed by a comet and we are all going to die" and they'll stand there obliviously checking their phone.
    – Stuart F
    Aug 5 at 13:06
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    @StuartF Undoubtably, which is why it's important to refocus someone who is zoning out. Tolerating people not paying attention to what is going on sends the message that what is going on is something that can safely be ignored. It's the meeting organizer's responsibility to make sure the content is relevant to everyone there and keep discussion on-track as much as possible. If they do that, asking attendees to give the meeting their undivided attention shouldn't be too much to ask.
    – ColleenV
    Aug 5 at 13:40
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I'm going to assume, as you used "daily standup" that you do some sort of scrum-style thing. If so, a good time to bring this up is at a retrospective, or maybe you could go over your "team charter" or whatever you call the document that sets out expectations around meetings. The one which says when your standups are and how long etc.

Keep it general, obviously, but something like "during standups/other meetings we need to focus on the work in hand/be mentally present. If there's an emergency then obviously you can deal with it but please step out of the room" kind of thing.

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Are you their manager or in the line management structure?

If so, taking them casually to one side and asking them not to shouldn't be an issue. If they take offence then there is a bigger issue about workplace attitude that needs to be considered.

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Interrupt the meeting and draw attention to the phone use.

A: (starts typing on the phone while soneone else is talking)

Manager: (turning to A) Has something important come up? Should we interrupt and continue later?

A: (puts away the phone, slightly embarrassed) Uh, no, sorry, please continue.

Repeat as necessary. If it happens again, a moment of silence and a questioning look might suffice.

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    Might work for some. For my case, not quite the culture I'm looking to build. It's much easier to de-empower someone in here than to restore their confidence.
    – HK-51
    Aug 3 at 18:33
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    @HK-51 Why is it not the culture you are looking to build? I'm all for starting by assuming that people will respect their peers, for example by giving them their focus during meetings, but if they have demonstrated they won't then it is not reasonable to go on assuming they will. How do all the other team members feel when they are being disrespected by this one person? Aug 3 at 20:37
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    @HK-51: Of course, culture-appropriateness is key here. In my culture (German-speaking Europe), this would be seen as a polite reminder to pay attention instead of playing on your phone (while acknowledging that the meeting can be interrupted if, say, the production server just crashed). I understand that the social rules might be different in other parts of the world.
    – Heinzi
    Aug 3 at 20:46
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    @HK-51 Guess that depends on a tone. If you will ask "Has something important come up?" like an annoyed teacher, then you are de-empowering them. On the other hand, if you will ask as a concerned peer, and are ready to accept answer like "Sorry, my wife is in the oncology hospital and this is the time I'm receiving updates on her treatment. Can we move the meetings? Because for me it is literally life and death important." then you will only de-empower rude people. Not ones who are just having a complicated time in life. Example from my experience.
    – Mołot
    Aug 3 at 23:11
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    @pgibbons Not a guy. Well, I had to reconsider my plans to extend her role with management eventually. But for an individual contributor, she's all right, and we're pretty loose on what's allowed, I'm okay with them just not e-making out in public. This is contingent on maintaining a good working relationship of course.
    – HK-51
    Aug 4 at 10:11
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While a policy revolving around the specific behavior may be the answer here, there is another way to look at this than that behavior. While most people understand what scrums are, they can be vastly different in practice.

I've been in scrums before where only one of the people even understand what I'm doing. I've been in scrums that dive deep down into technical implementations mid update. I've been in scrums where people are from different departments and don't understand everyone's update.

The things above can all lead to lack of engagement in the team during scrum which can cause similar issues in general. This behavior is one of many ways engagement can slip. Reflection upon what's happening in the scrum can help highlight areas that may need tweaks. Here are some questions that can be reflected on how:

  • Does everyone in the scrum understand the updates?
  • Is time spend between projects/people proportional?
  • Are things slipping into scrum that should be followed up at a later time?
  • Are the updates given at scrum relevant to the people at the scrum?

These may seem like simple things, but things drift with time and questions like this can gauge if things need to be adjusted.

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It seems I'm more direct than most in this sort of situation. In my opinion the behavior is occurring in public so it's okay to address tactfully in public. I would say something like, "If that text can't wait until after standup, could you please take it outside?"

At any rate, I don't believe in setting blanket bans because exceptions are very personal, but it's okay to expect professional behavior. Try to give a heads up if you're expecting an urgent call, and excuse yourself and leave the room when you get one. And recognize the difference between important and urgent. Even some very important communications can wait 10 minutes.

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I'd say that you can inform the whole team to simply use more discretion with cell phones during meetings. This way, you don't single anyone out. Observe the employee you've mentioned for maybe a week, and see if the behavior persists. If it doesn't, you're good. If it does, pull the employee into a private meeting and discuss.

You don't want to drop the hammer on the team and ban cell phones:

  • People with children or special-needs dependents need to respond to caregivers and school staff. These occurrences are sometimes urgent.
  • There are other legitimate situations that may be made easier with quick responses (medical / legal concerns, building contractor, utilities).

If you do this in a hybrid work environment, people are going to opt to not come into the office if it inconveniences them. So, walk this "soft" policy slowly and maybe you can urge the one employee to not abuse the privilege.

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Is the meeting really 10 minutes or is it running longer? Sounds like people say their bit and other coworker's reports are not important so the first ones tune out.

Do you need this meeting at all? Is it a glorified series of reports to the manager instead of a group keeping all its members up to date?

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    It's really 10 minutes. It's really people keeping each other up to date - well, the ones who don't, are learning how to. And I believe that, at this early stage of our company, we do need this like the air we breathe and the restrooms we seclude in.
    – HK-51
    Aug 5 at 14:32

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