- Talent Management
A few months ago, an acquaintance, who also happens to be the vice president of corporate communications at one of the nation’s largest technology companies, revealed something shocking: When she has a meeting, she makes her board members and even her CEO leave their phones in a basket at the door. While banning phones in classrooms and schools is common, the idea of banning phones in the boardroom, especially at a high-tech company, is not, but as my informant revealed, “I only get them for one hour each week, so I need everyone to be fully present. My CEO is particularly bad. He can’t stay off his phone, so I just take it away. Of course, it’s easier to make this a rule for everyone in the room, and the meetings are just more productive when everyone is listening and talking not texting.” Do our phones reduce our ability to concentrate?
Like it or not, there is a growing mountain of evidence that suggests our phones (and other digital devices) make us less present, focused and productive. In a widely cited 2009 study by Stanford University communications professor, Clifford Nass, Nass and his colleagues found that people who are constantly bombarded with various streams of data have more difficulty paying attention, controlling their memory and switching from one task to another. In short, today’s multi-screen citizens are paying a price and this holds true for workers who are trying to write a report and read several text and email exchanges and for students who are attempting to complete their homework while watching Netflix and playing a video game.
In a 2015 article published in the Harvard Business Review, Larry Rosen and Alexandra Samuel observed, “Doing two things well at the same time is possible only when at least one task is automatic. So, yes, you can walk and chew gum simultaneously. But check e-mail while participating in a conference call? Look at your Facebook feed and still do meaningful work? Researchers have demonstrated that the mere presence of a phone makes people less productive and less trusting.” Their second point is particularly important. Phones not only make us less present in meetings but also erode trust. The consequences for organizations, then, is significant. Missing information is one thing but declining trust is another. If you miss a key point, you can probably still obtain the information later. Rebuilding lost trust is a much greater challenge.
As suggested so far, the presence of phones in the workplace poses at least two known problems. They have been linked to lower productivity and lower levels of trust. Of course, not all phone use is a mere distraction, and this may be especially true in the case of younger employees.
Here, consider Jonah Stillman’s account. At 17, Stillman was invited to a meeting at Blackboard, a company that develops learning management systems for the higher education sector. When Stillman saw everyone pull out their laptops and start to take notes, he pulled out his phone and did the same, but this is where the problems began.
As Stillman explains after two hours of taking notes on his phone, the board members took a break. This is when the chair of the board approached him with some advice, “Listen, you’re doing great, but I want you to be super-successful here. Many board members noticed that you were on your phone a lot. If you can hold out on texting friends or checking your Twitter feed until the breaks, that would be great.” The problem was obvious. Although Stillman was taking notes, all the older board members in the room thought he was simply zoning out. On this basis, Stillman suggests, “Rather than allow others to see our phones as a distraction, we have work to do to prove that our phones are vital tools that we need to get the job done.” But this brings us back to the problem at hand.
On the one hand, phones are not the problem. Indeed, to blame our current levels of distraction on an external technology is to assume we’re helpless. This is simply not true. We are in control of our technologies. We built them, we buy them, and we choose how to use them. On the other hand, there is no question that phones in meetings (and classrooms) have created new challenges and their use poses broader risks (e.g., declining trust). While asking board members and CEOs to place their phones in a basket at the door may sound extreme, until we establish clear ground rules and common protocols on the use of phones and other devices in meetings, baskets may be our best bet. What this VP evidently recognized is that teams work best when they are fully engaged and present because that is precisely how trust is built.