Personal Devices at Work

Helping or hurting?

by Michelle Kleyla

It’s hard to discern the fine line between need and want when it comes to the very “‘tool”’ that helps us stay connected while not physically present.  But the nonstop need to access voicemail, text messages, and email presents a challenge in and out of the office. Trying to engage on a human level when it matters most also means competing with the constant barrage of digital messages that vie for our attention—and that we have a hard time pulling ourselves away from.

So how do we reconcile the need to be accessible by the remote client or child, with the desire to be present those that with whom we are sitting around the table in the conference room? 

Two hours and twenty-five minutes every day, most of it during work, we are on our devices making sure that we don’t miss a thing. In reality, we are still missing things because the science is real. We can’t make our brains let go of the constant urge to check a notification that someone wants our attention.  A study at the University of Texas in Austin found that it didn’t matter whether a person’s smartphone was turned on or off, or whether it was lying face up or face down on a desk. Having a smartphone within sight or within easy reach reduces a person’s ability to focus and perform tasks because part of their brain is actively working to not pick up or use the phone.

Dr. Gabor Nagy gives an example of focus while multitasking in the kitchen in the Designing for Focus Work white paper, “How do you fill several glasses with one bottle of water? You can’t fill them at the same time, and it is a whole lot more effective to fill them one after the other (doing one task at a time), than alternating the filling little by little. The more glasses you try to fill or the more you alternate, the slower this process gets, and probably the more mess you will end up making!” 

How do we manage (or not manage) this strain on focus to achieve the performance that the organization and the individual needs and wants to feel successful? The conflict comes out of limiting usage of the very device that enables people to get work done, but the data is quite clear that devices are a leading killer of productivity in the office, says a 2016 CareerBuilder survey. “While we need to be connected to devices for work, we’re also a click away from alluring distractions from our personal lives like social media and various other apps,” says Rosemary Haefner, Chief Human Resources Officer at CareerBuilder. 

So, what’s the solution? Creating the right approach that is appropriate for the organization takes a clear understanding of the culture.  A culture that supports the conversation about tech distractions opens the door to potential solutions. Ms. Haefner says, “The connectivity conundrum isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it needs to be managed. Have an open dialogue with employees about tech distractions. Acknowledge their existence and discuss challenges/solutions to keeping productivity up.”

Clearly outlining expectations, but taking the dictatorial approach may not work, especially if it does not align with the organization’s culture. Jason Brown, Chief Executive of Brown, Parker & DeMarinis Advertising, missed his device when he mandated no phones at any of his meetings. He likened the experience to outlawing alcohol during the Prohibition Era: “A theoretical state that almost no one wants to live in, including those making the rules,” he says. 

Leverage the workplace to create the right kind of spaces that allow people to blend personal connectivity into the work day—making medical appointments, addressing a sensitive issue whether personal or professional, or staying connected with family members during times of need—can be supported with the right physical environment, along with cultural expectations. Be explicit by showing others it’s okay to use those spaces to “‘step out’” of the meeting when you are waiting for an important call or message. Set up protocols to utilize the spaces that are designed to support the desired behavior.

Personal devices are both a blessing and curse—helping us to stay connected to both the professional and personal parts of our lives, yet we are challenged.  Our brains are challenged to manage the cognitive load needed to produce high caliber work while feeling the pull to our devices that distracts us. Finding the appropriate mix between expectation and policy, along with cultural alignment and spaces to support the desired behavior, should help in the reconciliation.