Monday, March 31, 2008

Companies ask employees to disconnect from technology to better connect with each other

At Saturday's YLNI Leadership Institute session, we discussed listening skills and the need to put technology aside in order to fully engage in a conversation. According to an L.A. Times story that ran in today's Journal Gazette, some Silicon Valley companies agree, and they are insisting that employees disconnect from technology in order to reconnect with one another:

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.


[A]s 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 each other.

With both Saturday's conversation and this morning's story fresh in my head, I did an experiment today: I participated in an hour-long conference call without access to my laptop or my phone. This may be no surprise, but I was much more engaged in the conversation, my notes were clearer, and my questions and comments seemed to be much more constructive. And when I got back to my desk, I was able to respond to everything that had been waiting for me in a matter of minutes.

Now, don't get me wrong: I'm a huge fan of technology, and I'd be lost without my Blackberry and my laptop. But I'm also a big fan of productivity and quality. Imperfect attention is a huge drain on both, because it's a time waster (for both the speaker and the listener) and it usually leads to things getting screwed up.

For all the value we place on multitasking, you simply can't listen while doing other things. Listening well demands all your attention. It's hard enough with the usual analog distractions: noise, the competing thoughts in your head, and visual distractions. Add technology into the mix, and you're almost guaranteed to miss most of what's being said. And while it might sound counterintuitive, sometimes you actually get much less work done when you multitask.

Part of the problem is that we don't want to miss anything, and we tend to think the next big thing is waiting for us in the next e-mail message, headline, or website. That's pretty addictive, and it leads to us checking messages and logging on much more often than we need to.

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 conversation I had with Saturday's Leadership Institute attendees indicated that many people would be in favor of at least an occasional technology blackout in meetings. I was in complete agreement then, and I agree even more strongly now.

What are your thoughts? How would you respond if your company asked that you disconnect from technology before connecting with your coworkers?

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