How connected is too connected?

Communication  Culture
25 November, 2014

Overcome your screen addiction and really be present during meetings.

A couple of weeks ago, I had written to you about how applications on smartphones or tablets can enable us to become more productive. Several of you have mentioned to me that you have been trying some of the suggested applications.

Certainly, these applications and tools such as email and messaging, have completely transformed the way we stay connected. But while the benefits of being connected are undoubtedly tremendous, is there something such as becoming over-connected and therefore, dis-connected? In this message, I want to talk more specifically about checking emails and messages during meetings.

I have increasingly noticed that in many of our meetings, a lot of people (particularly, senior team members) are constantly on their laptops, surreptitiously checking emails, surfing the web or sending messages on their phone. Frankly, on occasion, I have been guilty of the same behaviour. While I have been consciously trying to fix this, I do slip into the occasional lapse.

Most of us probably feel that a quick email check is quite harmless. Some of us may actually believe that we are being more responsive by clearing our inboxes quickly. Plenty of studies however show that as human beings, we are not as good at multitasking as we think we are. Even a momentary lapse in concentration from the discussion in a meeting can sap your focus. Usually, it takes a few minutes for your mind to switch from your inbox back to the meeting. Imagine all attendees doing this at different times during the meeting. It is no surprise then that this kind of behaviour can affect the rhythm of the entire discussion and make meetings less productive.

Equally important, I think, are the messages that one may be unintentionally conveying to the other attendees by constantly checking emails or messages during meetings:

  • I am not really interested in what is happening at this meeting
  • I don’t know why I am at this meeting
  • I don’t really respect the opinions of others
  • I don’t really have anything meaningful to contribute to this discussion

And this gets even more magnified if you are among the more senior people in the room since your teams expect you to be role models.

Think about it this way. When you are presenting or speaking, arguably after much preparation, how would you feel if your team members or peers have their heads down, focused on their laptops? My guess is that you would want them to pay full attention to what you are saying. Now, don’t you owe it to your team members and peers to extend the same courtesy when they are speaking?

Frankly, most of the time, the need to constantly check email and messages has become more of a bad habit rather than a necessity. Is it really that urgent? Are we waiting for a critical message? Can responding to that email or message not wait for a while? Or is it just that we are bored and looking for a distraction? Recent research compares compulsive email checking with what is called ‘lottery brain’ – a disproportionately high need to be constantly connected, more out of addiction than real need, much like people who play the slot machines.

And like with any other such behaviour, this needs honest introspection and a feasible improvement plan.

The solution to this is not trying to completely switch off from checking email and messages. That too would be very distracting in its own way. And a lot of communications today happen through email – so, we need to be responsive. What we do need is a middle ground, though.

Many people have found that setting aside designated times during the day to check email helps them be more productive and creative. It allows them to remain focused on discussions that they are currently part of, while ensuring that their responsiveness on email and message doesn’t get compromised.

Here are some ways in which other companies are trying to address this issue:

  • Starting at the top
    Signalling needs to start at the top. Leaders cannot be exempt from any rules that are set. They need to show the way and desist from using phones or laptops during meetings.
  • Establishing ground rules for meetings
    Before a meeting starts, request people to not use their laptops or phones. Don’t start before there is a consensus on this.
  • Installing a check-your-device-at-the-door policy
    The White House has a phone drop protocol. Before entering a room for a meeting with President Obama, cabinet members have to attach yellow sticky notes with their names to their cell phones and leave them in a basket. French President, François Hollande, and the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, also banned the use of cell phones during their meetings.
  • Taking frequent breaks
    If it is a long meeting, then take a break for people to check email and messages. Also, stick to the designated start and end meeting times. Don’t let the meeting drag.
  • Changing the way meetings are run
    Making our meetings more productive is a broader topic that I will cover in a separate message. However, ensure that meetings are brief and more focused. Also, have only those who are truly necessary attend the meeting. This helps streamline the discussion.
  • Committing to a response time on email and messages
    Given that most of us are trying to constantly track email and messages, it is ironic that frequent feedback from our team members says that we need to become quicker with our responses. We must remember that many of us are critical decision makers on projects and that progress gets stalled when we aren’t able to respond in time. We need to commit to a stated response time as a team and then stick to it. The best way to do this is to block out 3-4 times a day on your calendars as “email” time.

Clearly, this is a tricky issue. How pervasive do you think this is at GCPL? What should we do about it?

I would love to hear your perspectives on this. Attached is a short anonymous survey, which won’t take you more than a couple of minutes to complete. Please click on the link below to fill it out in the next couple of days (don’t do it during a meeting, though :-)).

Your thoughts and suggestions will be very valuable– so, please respond. All of you are the beacons for the culture that we are collectively trying to shape at GCPL. Therefore, your perspectives are very important. I will share our collective views from the survey in a subsequent update.


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