Are digital distractions to blame for employees’ rudeness?

According to new research, the overabundance of electronic devices for collaboration, social networking and communication tools designed to make it easy to complete work-related tasks is leading to rudeness at the office and at home.

The study of 1,140 UK workers conducted in the UK found that:

  • During face-to-face meetings, 41% of UK workers remain glued to their communication devices, sending instant messages; responding to texts; listening to voicemails; or checking their emails. This figure rises to a staggering 70% during virtual meetings and webcasts.
  • Thirty-one percent even admit to disrupting face-to-face meetings to answer their mobile phones –paradoxically, 4 out of 10 of these individuals agree it is rude to do so.
  • Age plays a major part in workplace etiquette. One in three workers aged 20-39 will take a mobile phone call while in a meeting, compared to 20% of people aged 40-60 and just 10% of people over the age of 60.
  • Nineteen percent of respondents willingly defy their superiors and stay connected when they’ve been told to explicitly disconnect.

It would appear that we have a classic case of double standards in the workplace, with 82% complaining about other peoples’ tendencies to disrupt proceedings by answering a mobile phone, tweeting, sending an instant message, responding to emails or even just updating their social status – which incidentally nine percent of our sample confessed they did.

Yet, rather ironically, 70% of those that rudely interrupt meetings themselves would be offended if someone did the same thing to them. Clearly, the perceived pressure to stay connected has led many people to neglect their manners.

The study also found that communication and social tools are encroaching on people’s personal relationships, with survey respondents reporting:

  • 85% keep connected during weekends.
  • 79% stay tuned in during evenings.
  • 74% keep in touch with the office while on holiday.
  • 48% even stay online while in bed.
  • 35% report they never disconnect from the office.

Thirty years ago, only doctors carried pagers — and reaching out to them after hours was only for matters of life or death. Yet, today communication and social tools designed to save us time in the office by making us more productive, are encroaching upon our personal lives.

What’s driving digital addiction?

A third of survey respondents said they fear they will lose their competitive edge if they disconnect from their inbox for 30 minutes or less, and 20% felt in danger of losing the upper hand over their careers when cut off from email for just five minutes.

Yet all this connectivity doesn’t generate greater productivity, as a third of employees are interrupted at least every 15 minutes. After each distraction, it can take another 20 minutes to regain focus and return to the task at hand.

The overall impact of digital distraction means that employees have trouble completing work (36%), suffer from information overload (22%) and as a result fail to think creatively (22%). People also return to work from the weekend or holiday with less energy and inspiration than they otherwise would. These factors make it hard for workers to carry out their allocated responsibilities with the necessary effort and focus.

I believe workers’ digital addiction has a lot to do with instant gratification. There’s a positive feeling associated with being able to check your email and find something new there, and there’s some anxiety that goes along with being out of the loop, feeling left behind. As addictive as that instant gratification can be, moving past it is crucial. The latest item in the inbox may seem to be the most urgent, but is it really?

What are organisations doing to tackle the issue?

Two thirds of businesses have adopted strategies to reduce digital distractions and boost productivity in the workplace. Specifically:

  • 39% have instituted enterprise collaboration and social platforms that speed up access to people and information. These tools are intended to eliminate the need to constantly switch between different contexts and screens, which can be a big time sink and a significant barrier to adoption. Yet, three quarters of workers still consider the canteen, water cooler/coffee machine and smoking room to be the top meeting and networking points. And despite the tools, more than a third (37%) still rely on personal recommendations to identify people to connect with, compared to 21% who rely on the company intranet or professional networking sites (11%).
  • 36% have blocked access to certain websites deemed inappropriate or irrelevant to complete work tasks, and 35% have blocked access to Facebook and other social media sites; 5% have blocked this access on Fridays only.
  • 25% provide training to better manage information overload.

This survey confirms that employees, having to peruse an ever-increasing array of communication tools to stay ahead in their professional life, are struggling to keep their personal and work life separate.

But the challenge remains how to streamline these communication tools, and encourage people to take control over their devices’ on/off switches, to regain civility and control over their lives New tools and strategies are beginning to appear that help workers cope with these pressures, and that is encouraging.

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David Lavenda is Vice President of Marketing and Product Strategy at Harmon. For the past 20 years, David has served as an executive for a number of high-tech companies. After completing a undergraduate degree in Physics, advanced studies in Electrical Engineering, and an MBA in Marketing, David co-founded Business Layers, an identity management company, serving as VP Marketing and Product Strategy from its inception until the company's successful sale five years later. Additional stints as VP of Marketing and Product Strategy for several successful high-tech companies followed. David is a technology expert blogger for Fast Company. He is also pursuing advanced studies in STS (Science, Technology, and Society) - focusing on the research of online behaviors.