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Some businesses bar pesky laptops from meetings

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Los Angeles Times / March 25, 2008

SAN FRANCISCO - As the birthplace of technology, Silicon Valley may have more gadgets per capita than any other place on the planet. Yet, even here, "always on" can be a real turn off.

Frustrated by distracted workers so plugged in that they tune out in the middle of meetings, a growing number of companies are going "topless," as in no laptops allowed. Also banned from some conference rooms: BlackBerrys, iPhones, and other personal devices.

Meetings have never been popular in Silicon Valley. Engineers would rather write code than talk about it. Over the years, companies have come up with innovative ways to keep meetings from sucking up time. Some remove chairs to force everyone to talk fast on their feet. Others get everyone to drink a glass of water beforehand.

But as laptops have gotten lighter and smart phones smarter, people have discovered a new diversion. The practice became so pervasive that Todd Wilkens turned to his firm's blog to wage his "personal war against CrackBerry."

"In this age of wireless Internet and mobile e-mail devices, having an effective meeting or working session is becoming more and more difficult. Laptops, Blackberries, Sidekicks, iPhones, and the like keep people from being fully present," he wrote in November. "Aside from just being rude, partial attention generally leads to partial results."

His San Francisco design firm, Adaptive Path, now encourages everyone to leave their laptops at their desks. His colleague, Dan Saffer, coined the term "topless" as in "laptop-less." Also booted are mobile and smart phones. It took some convincing, but soon people began connecting with each other, Wilkens said.

Linda Stone, a software executive who worked for Apple Inc. and Microsoft Corp., calls it "continuous partial attention." It stems from an intense desire to connect and be connected all the time.

"It's increasingly difficult to get people's undivided attention," said Stanford University professor Pamela Hinds, who studies the effects of technology on groups. The culprit: Etiquette has not kept up with technology, said Sue Fox, author of "Business Etiquette for Dummies."

Not everyone feels the urge to unplug. Selina Lo doesn't mind if her employees multitask in meetings. After all, the energetic chief executive of Ruckus Wireless, a Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Wi-Fi company, is a known workaholic.

"Occasionally, if I see someone too absorbed reading e-mails, I will elbow them," she said. "People are going to get distracted. It's OK as long as it is not for an extended period of time."

Some people wonder if by focusing on gadgets and gimmicks, everyone's missing the real problem. "People hate most meetings," said Jeremy Zawodny, who works with outside software developers at Yahoo Inc. "No one teaches anyone to run them correctly. They become a source of frustration."

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