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Employee Engagement - 27 September 2012

Maybe smartphones should really be called dumb phones. A recent survey by Harris Interactive found that three-out-of-five people couldn’t go an hour without checking their phone. Half of us use it in bed, 40 per cent use it in the bathroom, and a third can’t even have a meal with friends without tapping away on a device.

That last point is especially concerning. In a study released this year by the University of Essex, researchers discovered that the existence of mobile phones damages relationships. If you’re having lunch with a friend, for example, the mere presence of the phone on the table – even if you don’t touch it – harms the interpersonal connection between you and your mate. In the series of experiments conducted, the respondents rated the trust, empathy and quality of the relationship negatively whenever a phone was around.

According to the researchers, this occurs because mobile phones diminish our social consciousness. Their presence is a subliminal reminder of all the other things we could be doing in the world, thereby making it difficult for us to connect meaningfully with people.

This is probably happening in your workplace. If you’re in a coaching session and your phone is on the desk, attention is being held back. If you’re in a meeting and phones are on the table, focus is being depleted. If you’re in a workshop and phones are allowed, learning is being diminished.

The enormous amount of evidence on employee engagement is clear. At the core of engagement are the factors of connection, support, relationships, and understanding. And it could be that smartphones and other forms of technology are becoming barriers to your ability to engage with employees. Some suggestions:

- Make coaching sessions, meetings, and workshops a mobile-free zone
- Communicate face-to-face more than email, particularly when people sit near you
- Dedicate periods of the week during which employees can switch off their emails
- Encourage staff (and yourself) to leave smartphones at work when the day is done
- When having casual conversations, keep the phone in your pocket, bag, or drawer
- And always – always – avoid using text-speak because, seriously, it is: (a) not English, (b) easily misinterpreted, (c) uninspiring, (d) juvenile, (e) lazy, and (f) unprofessional.

It is true that smartphones have made us more connected than ever before. Paradoxically, they have also made us more disconnected than ever before. The challenge for you as a leader is to notice when real connections are being sacrificed for shallow connections, and when engagement is being neglected for the sake of convenience.


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