The Head of Innovation at Cheil London tells us why constant connectivity is turning into a malaise of digital dependency.
Having been stuck in New York courtesy of Hurricane Sandy, two of the most enduring scenes in the days that followed were the people crowding outside closed Starbucks stores, trying to get onto their wireless network, and two cyclists who were riding a tandem bike to generate electricity to charge people’s phones.
It highlighted just how reliant we now are on technology and in particular on being constantly connected. This was typified by the fact that every time my friends and I went into a restaurant or a bar, the first question we asked was: ‘Do you have wi-fi?’ This was, of course, to allow us to share our Instagram photos – nothing particularly essential in the general scheme of things – but it did make me wonder whether the huge amount of time and energy we devote to sharing our memories makes us risk losing sight of the process of actually creating some of those memories.
This issue of constant connectivity is turning into a malaise of digital dependency. Addressing this malaise in the workplace is something I’ve been pondering on for a while. Is technology now making us inefficient? Is being permanently connected, and in an ongoing state of continuous partial attention, making us less effective in our work?
One of my favourite quotes from this year’s SXSW was from Arianna Huffington, president and editor-in-chief of The Huffington Post. She said: “If we learn to disconnect in order to connect with ourselves, the impact will be amazing.”
That insight has triggered a set of experiments at Cheil UK, using a technology from the client we work with the most, Samsung Tectiles. Marrying the properties of Tectiles with the NFC capabilities of the Galaxy S3 has enabled us to develop two potential applications that can disconnect the team at appropriate times, with a view to measuring if disconnectivity does in fact make people more effective.
The practical incarnations of this thinking and technology are straightforward. The On/Off mat is a very simple desk mat which is being issued to everyone (other than account management, alas) to allow them to switch their phones on or off (wifi off, sound off, vibration off and brightness down) or on, simply by setting their mobiles on the mats. This is made possible using two programmable Tectiles on the back of the mat which simply ‘tell’ the phone what settings it should be on.
Part of the learning for us will be monitoring whether people start to recognise when someone clearly has their phone on the ‘off’ setting, and whether they then hesitate to disturb them. In an open plan office, the propensity to disturb at any point can be disruptive, and if this provides more thinking time it could make a really positive difference to the solutions we develop for our clients.
We’ve also developed meeting room tags which simply allow the team to swipe phone into silent mode as they enter a meeting room, and then turn it back to normal mode as they leave it.
We’re not advocating the need to constantly be disconnected – we’re in marketing after all, and connectivity is part of the DNA. But we are recognising that there are times where being disconnected is an advantage. Technology still has a lot of value but it needs to make things easier. For example, taking inspiration from our Pinterest People page, we have created a physical version with a difference. All you need to do is swipe your NFC enabled phone in front of any photo, and their contact details will be added to your address book. It might not seem much, but with 150 people now on the team, this is proving a good way to make it easier for people to get to know — and stay in contact with — their peers.
I personally think this need to disconnect will become a growing issue in the workplace. The more we become connected, the more we need to find ways to ensure our teams disconnect. While I appreciate the speedy response from some of them from their smartphones late at night, it does worry me that they are not getting enough time to disconnect and clear their minds. Conscious of this, I have promised to turn off all my devices during my pending honeymoon to really understand what it means to be totally disconnected. My wife-to-be is convinced I will not last more than a few days. From my perspective, if I can’t disconnect on my honeymoon, what hope do I have the future? Wish me luck.