We can all be guilty of spending too much time on our smartphones. It is totally addictive and it seems to have become more socially acceptable to stare and poke at a screen rather than engage with the people around us. The result is that our day-to-day interactions are changing but what impact does this have on the workplace?
Picture the scenario: I am running a training session at a large multi-national organisation. The attendees are senior managers from across the organisation who don't know each other, so it's a great networking and cross-selling opportunity. But that doesn't happen. In fact, very little conversation happens between the delegates - as people file into the room and wait for the session to start, phones are retrieved from pockets and all manner of swiping, poking and jabbing ensues. The same thing happens at the half-time break. What doesn't happen is good old-fashioned conversation. People don't readily introduce themselves to one another, favouring a retreat into a personal, private smartphone bubble.
This is just one example of how smartphones have changed our social habits in the workplace. The point is that we are interacting and engaging less and less with the people around us. This has a serious (and often detrimental) impact on the relationships we build at work. I talk to many people about the importance of building and maintaining trust in the workplace, yet trust can only be built through regular social interactions- those water-cooler moments; having a chat at the coffee machine, going out for lunch etc are so critical and important. I am not suggesting that we no longer do these things but it is happening less frequently. Increased levels of insular behaviour seems to be the upward trend which in turn means that we grasp those key opportunities to interact, engage and therefore build trust far less regularly than we should. This risks our workplace relationships becoming shallow, inferior and unsatisfying which has wider serious implications on job satisfaction, retention rates and productivity.
What is the answer? We all want to work in positive environments where we can thrive and do our best work. That requires building meaningful relationships but for that to happen we each have to demonstrate that we value the people around us. It's therefore about changing our habits, often in small ways, to demonstrate that we are more interested in the people around us and less interested in our latest and oh-so-shiny smartphone! For instance, where is your phone right now? Is it in a drawer or on your desk? Is it switched to silent or ready and primed for the next 'ping'? How many times have you glanced at your phone in the last hour? How often have you been distracted by your phone when a colleague was having a conversation with you? How much were you really listening? We all need to challenge ourselves and make adjustments to our habits. There are lots of ways we can do this, from introducing initiatives such as phone-free team meetings to being better at spotting (and challenging) when negative habits are creeping into the workplace (is everyone one at a training session looking at their phone rather than talking to each other?!). There isn't a single solution- lots of approaches can work, so be creative and talk to each other about the changes you can make in your workplace.
However you look to achieve increased interaction and engagement, the solution to the smartphone conundrum is about finding a better balance to harness the benefits of technology whilst knowing when it doesn't contribute anything beneficial. Very simply, we need to know when to put our phone down, when to step back from email or instant messenger and instead have direct and real interactions to build and nurture strong and meaningful relationships. In reality of course it can be much harder to persuade people not to look at their phone, but the more we talk about it, the more we challenge each other, the more likely it is we will move to better habits.