'Topless' trend is growing among firms tortured by tech overload

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 turnoff.

Frustrated by distracted workers so plugged in that they tune out in the middle of business 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 on which so many have come to depend.

Meetings never have 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 staff 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 even smarter, people have discovered a handy diversion, making more eye contact these days with their screens than with each other.

The practice became so pervasive, Todd Wilkens turned to his company blog to wage his "personal war against Crack-Berry."

"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 2007. "Aside from just being rude, partial attention generally leads to partial results."

His San Francisco design firm, Adaptive Path, now strongly encourages everyone to leave their laptops at their desks. His colleague, Dan Saffer, coined the term "topless." Also booted are mobile and smart phones, which must be stowed on a counter or in a box during meetings. It took some persuading, but soon people began connecting with each other rather than with with their computers, Wilkens said.

"All of our meetings got a lot more productive," he said.

It's not exactly attention deficit. 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; to be, in her words, "a live node on the network." And it seems to have engulfed all aspects of life, including the workplace.

The ever-increasing speed and power of technology allows employees to toggle effortlessly back and forth between tasks. The wireless revolution only has accelerated this trend, turning every laptop computer into a lightning-quick, mobile communications hub. Darting among multiple screens from an early age, young people in particular thrive on that connectivity.

"It's increasingly difficult to get people's undivided attention," said Stanford University Professor Pamela Hinds, who studies the effects of technology on groups. "People would argue they are attending to the most important information without any loss of participation, but in fact they aren't fully there."

The culprit: Etiquette has not kept up with technology, said Sue Fox, author of "Business Etiquette for Dummies."

"Social norms say that the person you are conversing with takes precedence over text-messaging, e-mail and cell phone. This rule applies in business, as well," Fox said. "Today, people seem to be more focused on their fancy gadgets than on other people. Face-to-face meetings have become a low priority because they're constantly being interrupted by technology, and many people can't figure out what to do.

"What's more important -- the gadget or the person, or people, you're with?"

The folks at Dogster Inc., the San Francisco company that runs the sites and, decided to cut the cord about a year ago. The decision was in keeping with its philosophy of creating a collaborative culture, said company co-founder John Vars.

"Even if people are just taking notes, they are not giving the natural human signals that they are listening to the person who is presenting or speaking," he said. "It builds up resentment. It can become something that inhibits good teamwork."

Bottom line, Vars said: better, more efficient communication.

"You can tell meetings go quicker and there is also just a shared experience," Vars said. "People are communicating better, the flow is faster."