Walk into any modern office or indeed almost any room and you’ll see screens everywhere. Laptops, tablets and smartphones have become a key tool for modern businesses and much of what they enable us to do is beyond incredible. Processes that used to take days or even weeks now happen instantly.
However, when it comes to meetings and, more specifically, strategic or creative gatherings, their presence poses a serious problem. I have attended many a session where, despite the fact that a key business issue is being discussed, over half the room is hidden behind their screens. It seems that even when we’re in the process of answering questions that shape the future of our brands and business, we can’t help ourselves from looking at our phones. Even when they aren’t actively doing something on a screen, everyone has a phone out on the table or in their pocket, and even that is troublesome.
The presence of technology reduces our individual ability to think creatively and focus.
Firstly, the presence of technology reduces our individual ability to think creatively and focus. Numerous studies point to how distracting devices are, and a study by the University of Chicago found that the mere presence of our phones ‘may induce “brain drain” by occupying limited-capacity cognitive resources for purposes of attentional control.’ In other words, having our phones with us makes us a bit dumb. In turn, this brain drain impacts the quality of our work. A study at the University of Washington found that if people transition from an unfinished task, the subsequent task suffers. In fact, the more times we switch between unfinished tasks, the worse our performance gets. In a workshop or creative ideation environment that allows devices, this means that the quality of the thinking gets progressively worse throughout the day.
You can easily test this for yourself: start a task you’re used to doing where you can track how much you’re accomplishing (writing is ideal). For the first 20 minutes, keep your phone out next to you, face down and on silent. Mark how much you’ve done. For the next 20 minutes, put your phone away (ideally in another room) and on airplane mode. I guarantee you will accomplish significantly more in that second period of time.
Secondly, screens act as a barrier to human connection, which is a key aspect of any effective gathering. There is a growing body of research around ‘technoference’ that looks at the ways in which technology can be damaging to our relationships. When we’re constantly checking email and text, no matter how important it may be, it sends a very clear signal to the person or group we’re with that they don’t matter. Once again, research from Virginia Tech University has found that even the presence of a mobile phone lowers the quality of our conversations and reduces the amount of empathy we exchange. If you want to test this out for yourself, go out for dinner with a group of friends who would usually have their phones out and ask if everyone could put them away. You’ll be amazed by how different the experience is.
I’ve seen the benefits of restricting technology at work first hand. At the workshops my company runs, screens aren’t allowed unless being used to project key information. We have set breaks to check email if necessary, but we keep the workshop space device free. This might terrify some people, as many of us are addicted to our devices and fear something terrible will happen if we unplug (I know I’ve been guilty of that). However, once the group settles into the workshop, it’s incredible how much more productive and connected everyone is without the constant twitch of needing to check our phones.