As I write this, my phone next to me is rendered useless by the O2 data blackout that has left millions of customers in the UK unable to get online. Of course Twitter blew up. A few favourites:
I wonder how many more O2 customers suffered from nomophobia (no-mobile-phobia – yes, it’s a thing)…
Jokes aside, it was a shock to come face-to-face with our unsettling dependence on technology. I, for one, got lost in central London without Citymapper, apparently unable to read a static map. Hundreds of black cab drivers across London were laughing all the way to the bank as The Knowledge kept them on the roads, meanwhile Uber drivers had to hit the brakes with no data-powered GPS.
Since the data outage, I’ve been doing some digging and it turns out that our dependence on mobile technology is terrifying. Some facts about the average young adult:
- Unlocks their phone 70+ times a day (around once every 12 minutes)
- Spends four and a half hours a day looking at their phone screen (which I’ll refer to as screen time)
- Spends another seven hours a day staring at a different kind of screen (laptop, TV etc.)
Adam Atler, author of ‘Irresistible: The rise of addictive technology and the business of keeping us hooked’, depicts how screen time has risen over the last decade:
The blue shades show our core daily activities, like going to work, sleeping, cooking, eating and white and yellow highlights free time. The red shows the growing, all-pervasive screen time. This trend isn’t set to slow down. In fact, some research shows that school children are using their phones between 6 – 10 hours a day.
What’s the psychological impact of this addiction on the emerging workforce?
Distraction. Distraction disables our unique capability to practice free-thinking. This is at the very core of creativity and innovation.
More scary research shows that we’re distracted at work every three minutes. And it doesn’t even have to be our own phone distracting us. We’ve all been there - you’re in a meeting, someone’s phone is face up, switched on silent. But it’s going off every other minute, flashing like a beacon and stealing your attention.
If you think the answer is improved office etiquette (no phones in meetings, phone-free zones etc.)… think again. We can’t simply take the phones away - our anxiety starts to rise within 3 to 5 minutes of being separated from our precious devices…
Human interaction. As machines take over the rote work, the skills that make us human are those that will keep us in a job – empathy, understanding context and non-verbal cues, collaborative problem-solving and out-of-the-box thinking. Yet technology is hindering our ability to cultivate meaningful relationships through face-to-face interaction. And it doesn’t stop there… our ability to communicate is going down the pan, ngl.
Organisations seem prepared to deal with the physical impacts of technology. For example, better office chairs, raised desktop screens, standing desks… But the psychological impact is being overlooked. Nevertheless, it will have a huge impact on our ability to take on the future of work, especially as the digital natives (with unprecedented levels of mobile addiction) start joining the workforce.
There’s endless advice (that you have to read online) about how to disconnect from tech in our personal lives. But at work it’s a completely different kettle of fish. Technology has enabled us to be better connected, global, faster and arguably more efficient than ever when it comes to doing business. So it’s not like we can just sack off the tech and practice the art of Hygge 9-5, is it?
Here’s a few thoughts on how to realistically address the negative psychological impact of tech addiction at work:
- Etiquette. Banning phones in meetings seems impossible. Let’s encourage phones face down in meetings instead.
- Education. Encourage the use of screen time monitoring tools, like Moment or Apple’s Screentime. Just coming face-to-face (pun intended) with how much time you’re spending on your phone could be the necessary jolt in the right direction.
- Schedule facetime. NO, not FaceTime – actual IRL face-to-face time. I would argue that socialising at work is increasing in importance in line with our increasing phone usage. We need space to hang out and we need events to bring us together away from the screens.
- Stigma shake-down. Employees don’t need to be online to be working. Encourage employees to schedule some time away from the screen for tasks that can be tackled old-school. I’d like to see organisations taking this seriously: find out how many employees feel pressured to be green on Skype 9-5. Cut that figure in half.
Today it’s our mobiles. Tomorrow it’s going to get even easier – we won’t have to lift a finger (let alone a device) to go through the digital gateway. The future of computing interfaces will most likely start with AR and increasingly “human” back-and-forth conversation with technology. Still - a pretty clear delineation between man and machine. But if Musk’s company Neuralink has anything to do with it, someday this boundary could disappear altogether as we build computers directly into our brains.
This begets the question: what’s the point in even trying to disconnect?