by Michael C. Lowe | March 01, 2013

Doug Landis recalls a time with a previous employer when people had to take the batteries out of their cell phones upon entering a meeting room, and drop their dismantled devices into a basket. "Only when the meeting was over were we allowed to fish them out," says Landis, now vice president of sales productivity for Box, the Los Altos, Calif.-based cloud-sharing and collaboration company. Meetings at Box could not be more different.

"We don't discourage mobile device usage at Box," says Landis. "We want our employees to be as productive as possible and work in a way that feels the most natural to them, with no barriers."

At Box, which counts 92 percent of Fortune 500 companies as clients, leveraging technology is a core corporate value -- and that extends to the meeting room. But in organizations of all types, the vast majority of attendees are equipped with smartphones and other devices that can either improve or impede productivity. The challenge for planners is keeping gadget-toters on task and using their phones or tablets for purposes of the meeting, not for updating Facebook or playing Angry Birds.

"The reality is that we're competing for attention, but we're not going to conquer it by asking people to surrender their phones on the way into the meeting room," says Linda Dunkel, chair emeritus and senior consultant of Interaction Associates, a Boston- and San Francisco-based consulting firm that specializes in helping clients achieve "return on involvement" in the workplace.

Policing attendees can turn a meeting environment sour, but there are plenty of clever ways to increase attention and participation. "When you create a compelling design for a gathering, attendees will be fully engaged and won't want to turn to their email," says Mary Boone, president of Boone Associates, an Essex, Conn.-based meeting design firm.

Following are smart tactics for keeping participants fully engaged.

Start with culture. A company's culture can do a lot to ensure efficient meetings. Box's corporate values, which help keep employees focused and on task, include the core tenet "Get sh*t done." (For more, see "Inside the Box," here.) If smartphones aid the task at hand, by all means use them.

Create small teams. Break larger groups into teams of five for discussions, suggests Boone. "It's very hard to stay glued to your phone when there are four other people sitting around looking at you," she notes.
Switch things up. Nancy Settle-Murphy, president of the meeting design and facilitation company Guided Insights, based near Boston in Boxborough, Mass., keeps larger groups on the move, changing activities every 30 minutes. "I try to create energy in as many different ways as possible so attendees want to be engaged," she says. "With a large group, it's really hard to monitor multi-taskers, so keeping the meeting interesting and interactive is important."

Activities can include using the use of flip charts for brainstorming, distributing discussion questions on index cards and letting attendees choose their own topic, or throwing in a few off-topic logic puzzles and offering rewards to those who get the right answer.