Monday, January 28, 2013

Technology Noise In Organizations

Mobile technology, both the personal devices that employees bring to work with them and the company issued devices, have created a new and potentially annoying noise level. Have you sat in a large group meeting when several cell phones set to vibration buzz repeatedly, calendar alerts remind us that we have somewhere else we have to be soon, and reminder apps pop up from our ‘to do’ lists?  Or in a virtual team call via conference call, Skype or Google+ Hangout and multiple devices frequently interrupt the flow of the discussion? Trying to find a quiet spot in the public library to complete some research?

Is That For Me?
Today, most places we go there are likely to be multiple mobile devices around us and despite the variety of tones to download the default options are often used. This creates further disruption as half a dozen people in the meeting are checking their devices trying to figure out which one sent out the alert! These days we can add the automatic synching between devices for our calendars, emails, and reminder apps which will then set off multiple tones as reminders. In my office my laptop, cell phone and tablet all set off different tones at the same time; there is little chance I will miss a reminder but it can be disruptive when working alone and in most open plan workspaces it can create an almost imperceptible level of stress.

Early Lesson On Technology Noise
I received my first PDA years ago, just one day before leaving for a business trip. I had quickly set it up and added items to the calendar, tossed it in my briefcase and off I went. Sitting in a group meeting the next day, a rather loud and repeated beeping started up and was quickly traced to my bag. Trying to shut off the sound proved to be a challenge-the manual wasn’t with me and I had not had time to learn how to do much of anything with my new device.

That one lesson, in the days before everyone carried mobile devices, created awareness that as much fun as new technology is it is important to remember that in addition to learning how to use it to benefit ourselves we need to stay aware of the impact it may have on those around us in much the same way as we pay attention to how we communicate without technology. The always on culture pushes us to a level of multi-tasking beyond anything experienced before, we become focused on that next thing to do, place to be, or problem to solve lessening our abilities to be aware of the impact we have on others in the moment.

What, If Anything Should We Do About It?
What does common courtesy dictate and should your company consider guidelines that include reducing the pings, rings, and assorted other alert tones that multiple devices add to the general noise level?

Several studies I read indicated that the presence of uncontrollable noise can significantly impair cognitive performance (the link to one of those studies can be found here:

If the studies conducted in laboratories hold true outside the lab then taking preventative action to reduce noise may provide benefits beyond reducing momentary annoyance. It appears that most of the studies primarily considered the decibel level of noise although there is research being conducted on the lower levels encountered in office settings; and this is where we might consider it worthwhile to create a practice or habit of muting mobile device alerts when in meetings or open plan workspaces.

In Your Coaching Session
When coaching clients that are developing new time management habits it can be effective to ask them to reflect on what the ‘worst case scenario’ might be if they muted all alerts or tones before a meeting or when in an open plan workspace. What might they miss by doing so and what real or perceived impact might there be by doing so. Then it is easier to move the discussion forward to the benefits of muting distractions to productivity, effectiveness and wellness.

Do you experience this issue in your workplace? What, if anything, has been done to address it?