Thursday, April 05, 2012

“Sleeping with Your Smartphone”

In the film Play It Again, Sam, which I believe was released shortly after the introduction of talkies, there is an amusing sub-theme around the need to stay constantly in touch with work. Whenever he goes, the Tony Roberts character, a businessman who is a close friend of the Woody Allen character, feels compelled to call into his office and let them know where he can be reached. In 1972, such behavior branded someone as a self-important, work-obsessed jerk. What an a-hole, we all thought, rolling our eyes every time we saw Tony Roberts pick up the phone at hand to let his secretary know where he was. What’s so all-fired urgent, we all asked, that he can’t get away from work long enough to enjoy an evening out with friends?

Normal people didn’t behave like this. Doing so was just unimaginable. Work was work; free time was free time. Sure, you might occasionally stay late at the office, or go in on weekends. But the thought of your manager calling you at home? Unless it was a colossal emergency – of the office just burnt down magnitude – the idea was unfathomable.

Fast forward a couple of decades, and all of a sudden an awful lot of people in business were carrying cell phones – more like lugging: those early ones were the size of bricks – and all of a sudden everyone carrying a cell phone was reachable whenever, wherever. Unless the wherever you found yourself in was one of the blessedly many dead zones.

Not everyone got sucked in to the anytime/anywhere, always on work culture. At least not right away. For plenty of people, a cell phone was for use only when running late, stuck in traffic, in an authentic emergency situation.

But the expectation was growing that, if you were important enough Ior wanted to be seen as), if it was important enough (or hungered to be positioned as), you would be available.

When I worked at Genuity, I was the “launch captain” for a big service launch, and a month before launch day, I had a long-planned vacation scheduled, one that involved a lot of moving pieces and people. The launch team was meeting every day, but things were running pretty smoothly, and I had a backup who could run the daily meetings as well as I could. Plus this was marketing, not life and death.

At one point, the CMO announced that he expected all the “critical players” to cancel their vacation plans. Our mission was just too important to the company’s survival. (Har, har, hardy, har, har.)

I told him that I was sorry, but I did not intend to do any such thing.

Before I could get the words out of my mouth, a prime toady in the group jumped in to say that the CMO was right, and that he would be foregoing his vacation, even if it meant disappointing his poor little vacation-less kiddies. I have no idea whether this toad actually had any vacation to cancel, or was just exercising his constitutional right to suck up – this is in our Constitution, isn’t it? 

The CMO gave me a withering look and said that Mr. Toad was a true example of dedication and leadership.

I went on that vacation, but I did cave a tiny bit, and called into one of the five meetings I was missing. A total waste of my time, by the way. Nothing that important got said or decided in my absence that required my presence, thank you.

Life went on.

Personally, I’m more than content that the bulk of my career took place before the advent of the smartphone, which keeps so many folks 4G-tethered to work.

Not that I don’t check my e-mails nights and weekends, and I do tend to answer them, but my clients do not expect me to be at their beck and call. (Again, the beauty of marketing.)  After a completely ridiculous ranting e-mail that arrived one New Year’s Day, I  dropped the one client I had who expected real-time everything. (In that case, real-time everything was not the fundamental problem I had with her, just the poisonous icing on an exceedingly foul-tasting cake.)

In any case, I read a recent article on the topic of hyperconnectivity  in The EconomistSlaves to the Smartphone – with interest.

Sure, the article said, there are advantages to having a smart phone or tablet: greater flexibility, more effective use of spare time, etc.

But, oh, what a downside, in that your time is no longer your own. And whatever’s happening on that smartphone so addictively becomes more compelling than whatever’s happening in the here and now – and whoever we happen to be in the here and now with. Which can’t be good for what we used to call “interpersonal relationships.”

It’s not, fortunately, too late to regain your sanity.

Harvard Business School Professor Leslie Perlow has studied the smartphone addiction problem and is coming out with a book, Sleeping with Your Smartphone, that prescribes what organizations can do to hyper-down the hyperconnectivity. (And, by the way, that sleeping with your smartphone is not just a figure of speech. The survey that prompted Perlow’s research found that 26% of the professionals and managers polled about smartphone use admitted to sleeping with theirs. (Was it good for you, baby?))

Perlow didn’t just do her fieldwork with any old pedestrian, lackadaisical, run-of-the-mill company. She studied Boston Consulting Group (BCG), a hyper, highly-charged Type A organization if any. She found that:

…for most people the only way to break the 24/7 habit is to act collectively rather than individually.

In other words, it doesn’t do you much good to turn off your smartphone if a) it will drive your boss nuts and he’ll keep leaving messages of escalating urgency for you (even if the urgency is largely faux), or b) your colleague in the next cubicle down is more than happy to jump out of bed and answer the call when the iPhone under the pillow starts vibrating.

Perlow got BCG to implement “predictable time off”(PTO), one night a week when employees knew they could give their kids a bath, play handball, take their spouse to an undivided attention dinner, or sleep with something or someone other than their smartphone, without worrying about being summoned by an e-mailed or texted call of duty.

The experiment apparently worked. Those who did the PTO thing reported improved productivity and morale.

But what a testimony to the world of work that something we used to pretty much take for granted has to be deliberately scheduled in.

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