by Aidan Healy – co-founder, UnPlug

In the last ten years, many of us have become all too familiar with the always connected world of digital devices. If I asked how you would feel if you did not have your smartphone for a few days, maybe even a few hours, it is likely that you’d have something of a mixed reaction.

Perhaps a feeling of calm or relief? Or, more likely, a sense of concern you could miss something important?

You are not alone. According to Deloitte’s most recent annual global mobile consumer survey, 39% of respondents felt they spend too much time on their smartphone and 83% would like to try and make a change. These statistics are even higher when looking at younger adults and new entrants to the workforce. The Chartered Institute of Personnel Development, the largest HR representative body in the UK and Ireland, received feedback from over 1,000 of their members as part of their Health and Wellbeing Survey in 2018. While 74% of members felt that the greatest benefit of technology was that it enabled flexible working, 87% felt the biggest challenge was it has created an inability to switch off out of work hours.

Here in lies the paradox. Whilst we love our devices for the power and flexibility they give us, the challenge is, we also struggle with them because of the power and control they can have over us.

At UnPlug, we know about this paradox all too well. We established the organisation in 2016 to help individuals and organisations engage with technology in a smarter and more meaningful way. We want to use our knowledge of digital transformation and people development to give organisations the tools they needed to help their people succeed in this always connected world. Since then, our programmes have been delivered in over 50 organisations through Europe.

In the words of Behavioural Designer, Nir Eyal what we are interested in is enabling individuals and organisations move from “distraction to traction” so we can put our focus and attention on the things that matter most.

Changing individual or organisational behaviour is challenging and no one size fits all. Often, it might be as simple as acknowledging that there’s something we want to change. And why that change is important to us. What does the constant use of technology potentially take away from us? Or how could we benefit from doing something different? Maybe it’s higher quality work during the day, a good night’s sleep, or higher quality downtime when outside of the office.

What we have seen work as a positive first step in making a change is to help people develop awareness around their tech usage, learn more how they are spending their time and understand their patterns of behaviour. Sometimes, it can be the persuasive design of an app that’s causing a bad habit. On other occasions, it might be the work culture or the organisation that is keeping people connective.

In recent months, we’ve had announcements from Google, Apple and Facebook about how they are planning to address this challenge. In iOS 12 and in Android Pie, both companies are introducing dashboards that will give you a dashboard with details as to how you use your phone. Examples include a daily or weekly breakdown on your time spent or number of pickups. There’s also information on how much time you spend on different apps, or how many notifications you get.

For those of you who are looking to go even deeper, there are also independent apps such as Moment on iOS and RescueTime on Android/Desktop that will give you even richer information.

There’s a reason awareness is often the first step. To use a food analogy, if you want to know how your healthy eating plan is working, you might stand on the scales once a week and see if the number has gone up or down. And in the same way, you need to be able to track the behaviour change you want to see and hold yourself accountable.

According to Daniel Levitin author of “The organised mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload”, constantly looking at our devices and switching tasks promotes a dopamine (pleasure hormone) compulsion cycle. Over time, we associate the positive feelings of checking email and social media like playing a slot machine in a casino. We are constantly seeking excitement or stimulation and our brain is seeking that dopamine hit. Because the reward is unpredictable and can happen at any time of the days, work or social media can develop from a functional part of our lives into a compulsive habit. Each time we check social media we encounter something novel and feel more connected socially and get another feed of pleasure hormones. As much of this behaviour is subconscious, bringing awareness into the picture helps us to override deep routed patterns.

Similarly, having a good organisational culture is not something you finish after a programme, but something a team practices week in and week out. When we work with clients, it’s about checking in and asking – how is this going for you? And if you are not meeting your expectations, how do we get things back on track or make a positive change? Without a system to hold ourselves accountable, without data that helps us understand how we behave, people will often do things for a couple of weeks and then revert to old behaviour.

What often makes the difference is how the leadership team in an organisation behave. When the boss or the senior team model positive behaviour, it gives everyone else permission to do the same. One example is the Managing Director of Twitter’s Dublin office, Sinead McSweeney, who has device free meetings to encourage respect, empathy and employee engagement. When devices are put down and out of our line of sight, people are more present to what is happening in front of them.

Another example is Fionnuala Meehan, Head of Google in Ireland, who uses two phones. One for her personal life and one for her work life. And her work phone is switched off when she is outside of work hours. It can be so easy to pick up a device to do one thing, then quickly end up scanning and being absorbed by something completely different. This is her way of setting her own boundaries and keeping tasks separate.

Studies have shown the benefits companies can have from making positive change. In response to a culture of feeling constantly connected, Harvard researcher Leslie Perlow co-created a programme called Predictability, Teaming and Open Communication with the Boston Consulting Group. Led by a facilitator, PTO provides a forum for team members to share their working patterns, their expectations and increase their awareness of how the team is functioning. It helps establish a roadmap for each project and how people want to work together to get the results.

Predictability means that there are collectively agreed periods of downtime for each team member. People know when they can switch off and they feel safe in doing so.

Teaming means that the team works together to support everyone in having time off. For example, if one team member has an evening off, the team will discuss in advance who might need to provide cover, or how the work can be structured, so that person gets their time away from work.

Open Communication means that the team discusses their progress regularly. If someone is finding it difficult to take time off, the team reviews why that might be the case. And they discuss what they can change or do differently next time around to support the individual and the team.

There is a reason the Boston Consulting Group turned this methodology from an initial academic exercise into a global programme in fourteen countries. Staff members at BCG reported exceptional improvements in both personal satisfaction and project performance after adopting PTO, including 1) An average 35% increase in teamwork and collaboration, 2) A 35% increase in value delivered to clients, and 3) A 100% increase in team effectiveness.

With the positive benefits to our work lives, our personal lives and organisational results – Isn’t it time we placed more attention on how we are engaging with technology?

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