Do Your Employees Need a Digital Detox?

A good friend e-mailed me Friday morning to let me know she had forgotten her smartphone at home, and after work was heading straight to her parents’ place for the weekend. She wanted me to not be offended if she didn’t respond to my texts. I thanked her for letting me know, and joked that it may not be a bad thing, giving her the experience of “digital detox.”
I’ve been hearing a lot lately about people improving their lives by either limiting, or entirely putting away, their smartphone. I get annoyed watching people on the sidewalks, and even crossing the street, with their faces directed toward their phones, rather than toward the people and obstacles around them. “What could possibly be so important or compelling that they’re watching?” I ask myself. I have a smartphone I adore and use extensively, but the difference between me and them is I’m not addicted. 

That means I can take a last look at my phone when walking out the door in the morning, tuck it into my purse, and then ignore all the vibrations emanating from it with notifications until I get to my office. Many people can’t do that. They feel compelled to find out what each notification is about, or they need to check in with an app, send a text message, or make sure one hasn’t come in, or look up something on the Web, etc.

Are most of your organization’s employees more like me—a heavy user of her smartphone, who can still put it away and ignore it—or are most like the people who annoy me every morning as I walk to work, with their faces in their phones watching something—anything—as transfixed as a cat watching a tennis game on TV?

A few years ago, the Virgin Group decided its employees needed a digital detox, and announcedit would be giving them a weekly two-hour break from e-mail: “The Digital Detox takes place every Wednesday morning for two hours. All e-mails are shut down and no access is granted for the two-hour period. The move is designed to encourage employees to spend more time communicating with colleagues, stop focusing on the inbox, and step away from the desk.”

I applaud that gesture but wonder whether it’s meaningful. The more meaningful gesture would be for a company to restrict managers from expecting employees to respond to e-mail and text messages at night and on the weekends. Most companies don’t require employees to respond to digital messages at night and on the weekends, but at many organizations, there is an expectation that employees will check their work e-mail from time to time during the hours they are away from the office and supposedly at leisure. Giving employees freedom from that responsibility is psychologically liberating, and gives them one less reason to repeatedly—and compulsively—check their phones.

When your face is angled toward your phone, instead of toward the world, there’s a lot you miss that could be helpful to your work. You might miss a store’s window display showcasing products that compete with those your company produces, or you might miss a conversation you otherwise would overhear in which a person comments on a difficulty your company could help with. For instance, say you’re in the software development business, and you’re walking down the street or sitting at a coffee shop, and the people next to you are talking about an annoyance they are experiencing with their computers. Paying attention to that conversation might give you an idea for how you could market your software to reach those people, or how you could update your software to take care of the issue that’s bothering them. 

Less time relying on a smartphone for constant communication means more time communicating with yourself. When you don’t have the crutch of a smartphone to nervously check every few minutes, you’re alone with yourself. Reflective introverts like myself are comfortable in that state, but it’s a challenge—and a growth experience—for others. Imagine the personal enrichment that could occur if your most voluble, extroverted employees had to be alone with themselves for at least a couple hours every several months. 

If you restrict managers from expecting employees to check digital messages at night and on the weekend, that most likely doesn’t mean employees will put away their phones. It provides a psychological break from work, but not a break from digital dependence and fear of being alone with themselves. 

The idea of a two-hour block of time every week when employees don’t send or receive e-mail is a great start, but to take it one giant step further, what if once a quarter employees experienced a digital detox retreat in your office or someplace nearby? They would be asked to surrender their phones and all other digital devices, and be separated from each other with just themselves and a pen and pad for two hours. 

The facilitator of the session could pose questions to spur thinking and reflection before the two-hour session begins, such as: 

  • What are you most proud of in your personal life and why? 
  • What are you most proud of professionally and why? 
  • What are shortcomings in your personal and/or professional life that you would like to address?
  • What would be your dream job/ideal arrangement at the company? 
  • If you could make the company be anything you wanted it to be in terms of both the employee and customer experience, what would it be? 

Attendees either would jot down notes with their responses to those questions or just think about them and discuss them later with a Human Resources or Training professional or their manager.

Do you think life is richer when you can take a 30-minute walk without looking at your phone? What would be the result of asking employees to spend two hours a quarter without any digital devices and without anyone to talk to during those two hours? What rich ideas and thoughts could be unearthed inside your employees, rather than through a text message or e-mail?