50% of young people check their smartphone in the night. One in ten check it as soon as they wake up. Over a third said excessive use of their phones caused arguments with their partners. Such are the recent findings from a Deloitte survey* and they make dramatic reading, leading the casual observer to comment on the insidious presence of technology in our modern lives.
But is the omnipresence of a smart phone really a curse? It’s all too easy to blame them for a range of issues from the rise of teenage mental health problems, to the disconnection between parents and their children, to an increase in stress. Sure, these alarming trends are real but can their cause really be laid at the feet of technology all the time?
There’s a great cartoon doing the rounds at the moment: in it are a group of young teenagers sitting on a (what looks like a school) bus and each is avidly staring at the screen of their phone. The image screams of social isolation – see, just look what phones do, they take you away from real life and the people around you. But a second take on the same image reveals what those teenagers are doing on their phones. Each one of them is either connecting with family and friends, or talking about when they’ll be home (safety/security), or how they’re looking forward to meeting a new arrival into the family (affiliation/ connection), or congratulating a sibling on an achievement (family connection). And this all seems to be taking place after the group on the bus had been connecting with each other earlier. You get the picture.
To be fair, the truth is probably somewhere between those two extremes. But the crucial point is that we can use technology – and smart phones in particular – to our benefit. In the workplace, it’s all about the norms leaders set about how smart phone are used. And crucially, it’s about what those leaders themselves do with their phones day to day. (Isn’t it always about what leaders do rather than what leaders say?). We celebrate those organisations who give real and proper permission to their people to switch off their phones to emails and calls in the evenings and at weekends. And as importantly, we admire how those organisations build a culture that expects emails not to be answered or even checked.
But that’s not a policy that suits every organisation, and each has to find its own way to get the benefits from always-on technology in a way that’s right for them. Let’s not forget how we need to design interaction with technology that suits employees too. More and more, parents, or workers with elder care responsibilities, want to choose how they use their discretionary time. Being able to visit a school to watch a play, or chat with a nurse or medic during the day is a luxury and a benefit. Adults who do these kinds of activities are usually happy to use personal time at another time to make up. So, rather than dwell on the negatives of the likes of smart phones, how about we also celebrate the freedom that they can give.
And consider how smart phone technology can help leaders create a much better experience of change for their people – and as a result, increase their ROI in change activities. (Full disclosure, we’re proud to be in this business). We see how employees actively welcome the opportunity to have a voice to give their views on what’s working and what’s not. And we’re starting to see how they like to be able to give their views via a quick and intuitive app experience on their phone which they can do in the queue for a coffee in the morning or as they wait for the train home. An experience that’s far away from the usual corporate interface. Put yourself in the shoes of those employees and imagine now being able to customise when and how frequently you receive those short sets of questions. And that’s the way that we like to think about how technology can make a positive difference.
*Technology, Media & Telecommunications Predictions, 2016, Deloitte