Can Smart Devices Dumb Down Your Team?

You’re so nervous-excited, you’re bouncing on the balls of your feet. Everything’s set up just right. You’ve prepared your notes. You know your project back to front. You’ve practiced your presentation with a few colleagues who say it’s great. You launch into your final project presentation and everything’s going great, until…

Smartphone distraction…you notice heads pointed toward laps (not yours), slight arm movements, and maybe the faint bluish glow of a screen.

Ouch. Talk about having the wind taken out of your sails.

Unfortunately, this happens more often than some of us want to admit. It’s called the smart device fugue: where people are “there” but not “all there.” Instead, they’re plucking away at a text message or game, or catching up on sports scores, all from the comfort of their device du jour.

I admit it. I’ve had it happen to me, especially with my iPhone in college. It was easy to “check out” of class, send texts, and read the blog post I’d looked up before entering the room.

Now, however, we don’t just use phones to “check out.” We have tablets, too!

I’ve never purchased an iPad. I didn’t really see the need for one. But when my mom “upgraded” to one of the iPad minis, she let me have her first-gen iPad.

Hey, whatever. Free iPad. I figured it’d make reading PDFs more palatable, especially considering the alternative: reading PDFs on my nearly seven year-old laptop. It’s performed admirably at that task as well as others (like playing games and surfing Reddit).

Of course, it has its drawbacks. One of the things I notice when I jump on the iPad is that time just evaporates. Fifteen minutes turns into an hour and a half. That’s a nightmare for my productivity.

Much like television, it’s way too easy for me to get sucked into wasting time on smart devices. Apparently I’m not alone in that, because a pair of faculty at Kent State have released a study that links smart phone use and decreased physical activity and fitness.

In the study, over 300 college students were surveyed on cell phone usage and activity level. The results were pretty predictable: those who spent the most time on their phones (several hours) were less active and less fit than those who spent about an hour and a half on their phones.

(Somewhere, a college sophomore is texting “like, duh!!” to her BFF Jill in response to such a groundbreaking revelation.)

The conclusions speculate that this relationship between cell phone use and fitness level might be usable in linking cell phone use and various health problems — mostly “diseases of civilization” like obesity.

It’s certainly possible. I know I’ve picked up my iPhone/iPad for “just a few minutes” before training or going for a walk. I ended up snapping out of a relative daze an hour and a half later, despite several weak mental reminders of, “Hey, you should be outside right now!”

Think about what this can do in the workplace. What might be the ramifications of extended smart device use?

Lower productivity is certainly a concern. Opening my iPad can mean 1-2 hours of lost job search or article research time. But that’s unpaid. What happens when you have one, two, or several employees who do the same thing during the workday? Money down the tubes, that’s what happens.

Inactivity happens, too. Honestly, though, it isn’t much different than being parked in front of a computer/laptop screen all day. Efforts to curb one can help curb the others: more face time (not FaceTime!), standing/flexible workstations, and technology-free meetings.

The other thing to consider is the social effect, especially employee engagement. I’m no Luddite, believe me. I enjoy the positives that smart devices have brought to my life. However, I also notice distinct patterns when I (or my family members) use my iPhone/iPad for any significant length of time.

I’m not engaged with the people around me. The worst is when I’m in the room with family and everyone’s on a device with the TV running. There’s barely any conversation. What little conversation takes place is brief, and competes with “BRIGHT SCREEN IN YOUR LAP HEY LOOK AT ME” for attention.

If your people aren’t engaged, they aren’t getting the full benefit of the team interaction. Whether it’s learning about a new project, discussing analysis, shooting the breeze, or exercising at the fitness center (I’ve seen treadmill runners on smart phones… scary stuff), the mental focus isn’t there and that can lead to problems.

The way I see it, we should aim to maximize our mental focus when it’s truly needed. There’s a neat little graphic going around the ‘Net about a way to curb smart device use when out with friends. Have a look:

Engagement and Smart Phones

Give this concept a shot with your employees whenever a group meeting is in session. Lunch, a presentation, a review, a client meeting, whatever: find a way to keep everyone engaged. It’ll do wonders for focus, for engagement, and for morale. You won’t have team members (or, heaven forbid, clients) ticked off because a coworker was playing Angry Birds and paying half-attention to the conversation.

How do you balance new technology (phones, tablets) and keep engagement high? Share your experiences below!


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One Response to Can Smart Devices Dumb Down Your Team?

  1. This is a big problem in the modern workplace. I’m working with the Health Work & Wellness™ Group to develop a social media policy at their Better Workplace Conference. We want delegates to use social media but how can we encourage it without sacrificing face-to-face engagement.

    Good topic.

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