Technology addiction is damaging our personal and work lives. Studies suggest people are increasingly unhappy with their use of screen time and social media. The endless refresh cycle of major apps like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Twitch, etc. are highly addictive and designed to distract. The tech industry’s focus on increased engagement has led hundreds of millions of people worldwide to become dependent on their devices at the expense of family, friends, personal growth and work productivity.
Corporate leaders have a unique opportunity to change their cultures around technology. Doing so would help improve employee health, happiness and retention while increasing productivity. This is true for most employees, but none more so than parents, who report a very high degree of concern about aggregate screen time in their family. If we want to help (and I believe it is our responsibility as leaders), there are new solutions of varying degrees of complexity that rely on new research and thinking. The alternatives may be new, but this problem has been a long time coming.
At the beginning of the Internet, many companies sought to limit frivolous screen time by blocking sites and apps from work computers. Now, with the broad proliferation of personal smartphones at work, blocking simply won’t cut it. While you may restrict Facebook on employees desktops, that does nothing to stop push notifications on their personal phones. Moreover, the employees you most need to retain are often the ones least comfortable with site/app blocking. If their work involves engineering, marketing, sales, recruitment or communications they need to be on social media during the day, and they would reject paternalistic efforts to reduce tech use.
While it won’t be easy to help our teams focus, exciting new options have emerged. For the past 10 years I’ve helped organizations of all sizes use gamification to engage employees and customers. I believe things have gone too far, and I know intimately how important these addiction-algorithms are to most contemporary businesses. Now I dedicate my time to helping people achieve “tech-life balance,” through my work with Onward. It may be surprising, but in the battle for your employees’ wellbeing, there are a number of proven techniques that can really help.
1. Create distraction-free time
The workday is filled with distractions, whether in the form of meetings, casual chit-chat or the endless buzzing of social media notifications. By encouraging employees to create distraction-free time, you can dramatically improve their productivity and happiness. Have them calendar a block of time each day that is distraction free, and give them tools to prevent unwanted interrupts during this time. This can even include auto-responders and a little desktop note card “Shhh…I’m concentrating” for those real-life situations. Be sure to give all employees headphones if they don’t already have them as well. Though it seems obvious, your encouragement and offering the right tools to your team can make a big difference.
2. Encourage screen time boundaries
There are times when screens are valuable and times when they aren’t. Try running creative meetings that involve no screens (mobile, watch or laptop) whatsoever and watch focus increase. Be sure to enforce a no-device rule during important company-wide gatherings and social events as well. By clearly articulating “This is a no-device time” for specific events, you will have a greater impact on people than a blanket ban on all devices, so use it sparingly.
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3. Make lunch a thing
One of the most powerful and paradoxical negative effects of social media is that it makes people feel less connected and socially supported than before. This phenomenon creeps in from employees’ personal lives and affects the workplace as well. Therefore, it’s important to establish regular face-to-face time for your team – and lunch is a great, easy way to do it. At my startups we have lunch as a team together each day at noon. The team loves the camaraderie and looks forward to the lively conversation each day. When you visit corporations with a great corporate culture, you will also notice how big a deal lunch is each day. Obviously, free lunches will encourage more presence, but you can start small (Taco Tuesday?). Leadership should emulate this and encourage people to put their devices away during lunch and avoid desk-eating for maximum benefit.
4. Offer support for employees and their family
Much of the suffering related to tech addictions happens in the home but bleeds into the office environment. Yet, it’s often the workplace that exacerbates the situation, with workers checking office email well into the night and upon awakening in the morning. Help people change their relationship to tech by limiting or even forbidding sending business emails after hours. Train employees how to use email effectively and when. Encouraging a balanced approach to technology usage that extends from home to office will help morale and reduce the potential for burnout.
Ultimately, how leaders respond to tech addiction is crucial. Companies can take a stand to help their employees achieve a tech-life balance, not only at work, but at home, too. It’s a wellness benefit that costs little, but can yield dividends in reducing burnout and improving productivity.