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: BlackBerries, iPhones and other personal devices so many have come to depend on.
As laptops have gotten lighter and smart phones even smarter, people have discovered a handy meeting diversion, making more eye contact these days with their screens than each other. The practice became so pervasive that Todd Wilkens turned to his company 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 strongly encourages everyone to leave their laptops at their desks. His colleague Dan Saffer coined the term "topless" as in "laptop-less." It took some convincing, but soon people began connecting with one another rather than 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.
The ever-increasing speed and power of technology allows employees to effortlessly toggle back and forth between tasks. The wireless revolution has only 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.
But 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.
Late in 2007, Jeremy Zawodny, who works with outside software developers at Yahoo Inc., attended his first "no laptops" meeting at the Sunnyvale Internet company.
"I looked around in amazement that no one had their laptops open," he said. "I try not to bring my laptop to meetings because the pull is strong if I am not interested in something being discussed or if the topic doesn't directly involve me."
The folks at Dogster Inc., the San Francisco company that runs the sites Dogster.com and Catster.com, 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."