It's hard not to notice the seismic shift that's taking place in the modern business meeting. There have been similar paradigm-shifters, like Powerpoint and expanding the business day to include breakfast, but this one's a doozy.
When everyone at a meeting has an iPhone, Blackberry or laptop, a critical mass of distraction is reached and the number of people with their heads buried over a screen increases exponentially. It is not unusual, in fact, to find one's self speaking at a meeting where no one at all is making eye contact.
If a meeting takes place and no one notices, does it make a sound? Does it have an impact?
It is both bad for business, which is pretty dangerous these days, and just plain rude. But there is a solution!
I'm not suggesting banning cellphones and all electronic devices from meetings. Such heresy would never be tolerated and besides, I get enough complaints when I suggest Twitter can be a bit de trop. My idea is simple.
Under my proposal, every meeting, conference and company lunch will include one person to make Designated Eye Contact (DEC). The DEC officer (rotated every three days or thirty hours of meetings, whichever comes first) will receive training in Sincerity, Attentiveness and Interest, as well as methods to forestall atrophy, torpor and homicide.
(DEC can save lives. Just the other day, a disgruntled list broker snapped upon realizing that no one was paying attention to a word he said. Before he could remove a concealed handgun from his briefcase, the DEC officer smiled at him with such warmth and empathy that the executive nearly swooned).
DEC will allow busy executives to continue to read their emails, text friends or mistresses and surf the internet. Office efficiency will increase, as workers who are not expected to devote time to meetings and follow-up will have more time for other projects. Morale will be assisted as DEC officers benefit from the profound gratitude of their peers, and also from looking forward to it being their turn.
In time, it is hoped, workers will be able to dispense entirely with the burden of just showing up, under a system called the Unitary Work Force. Just as Isaac Asimov predicted a U.S. where elections were decided by one person hooked up to a computer, it is possible that all executive work (which is mostly blue smoke and mirrors anyway) can be produced by one person, and a lot of coffee.
In the meantime, appointing a Designated Eye Contact officer will improve the lives of millions while lowering expectations of effectiveness. For the handful of discussions in the workplace that are truly essential, meetings can take place as live streams, online chats, blogs and reality TV shows.
Think about it. After we solve the problem of having to pay attention in meetings, maybe we can find a way to avoid answering email, going to office birthday parties and reading smark-aleck blog posts about the evils of technology.