A New Year’s resolution for the workplace

Posted at 5:14 PM, Dec 30, 2014

Editor’s note: Ron Friedman is a social psychologist and author of the newly published book, “The Best Place to Work: The Art and Science of Creating an Extraordinary Workplace” (Penguin Random House/Perigee). The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

Imagine that after a routine medical exam your doctor delivers some devastating news: Since your last checkup your cognitive performance has plummeted.

Your ability to connect with others has eroded. And your memory for everyday events is no longer operating as it once did.

But as it turns out, there is a cure and it won’t cost you a penny. The treatment is simple.

Would you follow the doctor’s advice?

All that’s required is that you put away your smartphone.

Few of us will have this conversation with our doctors. But perhaps we should. Over the last few years, scientists have begun studying the way cell phones affect the human experience. Early results are alarming.

Consider the findings of a study in this month’s issue of Social Psychology, examining how the “mere presence” of a cell phone — even when it is not being used — influences people’s performance on complex mental tasks. Within the study, participants were asked to quickly scan a row of digits and cross out consecutive numbers that add to a pre-specified total (for example, any two numbers that total 3). Before they started, half of participants were asked to put away their phones. The other half were asked to place it on their desk, ostensibly so they could answer a few survey questions about its features.

Not a single cell phone went off during the experiment. Yet compared to those whose phones were stowed out of view, participants with phones on their desk performed nearly 20% worse.

Why would the presence of a silent cell phone inflict such a heavy toll? One possibility is that years of cell phone usage has conditioned us to anticipate the arrival of new messages. Consequently, even when our phones sit perfectly still, simply having it in our peripheral vision tempts us to split our attention, leaving less mental firepower for doing our work.

And it’s not just our execution on problem solving that suffers. A University of Essex study found that the presence of a cell phone also interferes with our ability to form close interpersonal connections.

In one lab experiment, researchers paired volunteers who had never met and had them take turns discussing an interesting personal event that occurred in the past month. Half the conversations took place with the experimenter’s cell phone on the table. In the other half, a small spiral notebook was used in its place. Afterwards, participants in each pair evaluated their experience.

The results were striking. Participants who spoke with a cell phone in view perceived their partner as less understanding and less trustworthy. They were also more skeptical that further dialogue with their partner would yield a close friendship.

A follow-up study conducted at Virginia Tech confirmed that it’s not just people’s impressions of their partner that dip in the presence of a cell phone. It’s the actual quality of their conversations. “In the presence of a mobile device, there is less eye contact,” lead author Shalini Misra observed. That makes both partners more likely to miss subtle changes in one another’s expression or tone.

In addition to splitting our attention, there is strong reason to suspect that frequent smartphone use and the constant connectivity it engenders interfere with memory formation. To transfer information from short-term to long-term memory, the brain requires periods of rest. In a world where every free moment is spent refreshing email or responding to text messages, there are fewer opportunities for long-term memories to form.

There is something deeply ironic about a device designed to improve efficiency and foster connections achieving the exact opposite. In this way, smartphones are emblematic of a bigger issue with the way we use technology. Often, the tools we use to control our lives end up controlling us.

Nowhere are the perils of technology more commonly overlooked than in the workplace.

As I explain in a new book on the emerging science of workplace excellence, to perform at our best, we require distraction-free periods in which we can leverage our full, uninterrupted attention. For many of us, these conditions are surprisingly difficult to come by, in part because of the way we allow technology to interfere with our work.

Consider what happens when a new message arrives in your inbox. Unless you’ve changed the default settings on your email, you are treated to a pop-up message, the sound of a bell, or a counter that signals your growing number of unread messages. Each time this happens your brain is forced to make a series of decisions (“Check email or keep going?” … “Respond now or later?”) that drain your mental energy.

These disruptions add up. Studies indicate that even brief interruptions exponentially increase our chances of making mistakes. This is because when our attention is diverted, we use up valuable cognitive resources reorienting ourselves, leaving less mental energy for completing our work. Research also suggests that frequent decision-making causes us to tire. The resulting fatigue makes it harder for us to distinguish tasks that are truly important from those that simply feel urgent.

Unfortunately for many of us, the habits that lead to these cognitive and social deficits are extremely hard to give up. So what can we do differently if we’re looking to make a change in the coming year?

A good place to start is to make cognitive distractions less tempting. Avoid keeping your smartphone on your desk. Banish email alerts that shatter your concentration. Schedule distraction-free periods on your calendar, during which you can fully attend to one task at a time.

Companies interested in achieving top performance would be wise to support employees in these endeavors. Like any attempt at organizational change, it is the behavior of those at the top that often yields the strongest influence.

Modeling the use of distraction-free periods and shunning smartphones during meetings can go a long way toward signaling to employees that focused work is valued, and that they need not feel tethered to their email.

In 2015, we can expect the role of technology in the workplace to expand. And this is why it is vital that we acknowledge that not all innovations are equally effective at improving our productivity, and that sometimes, the best way of enhancing our performance is to turn off the monitor, disconnect the telephone, and simply think.