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Tech Etiquette

Rising number of Internet-connected mobile devices leads to poor mobile manners

Richard Outten runs a different kind of staff meeting.

No one sits. And laptops and smartphones are not allowed. 

Outten, a senior manager in the Office of Information Technology, understands better than most how technology can boost productivity and make life easier. He also understands how it can get in the way of workplace efficiency.

"We've tried different approaches to minimize waste and improve the flow of information and work," Outten said. "We're always looking at how we can better fit the technology with human interaction, because sometimes that human interaction side gets lost."

With the proliferation of laptops, smartphones and tablets, constant connectivity can make it tough for workers to focus on what's really important, experts say. Whether it's paying more attention to email than colleagues during meetings or answering a smartphone during a conversation, an estimated 75 percent of U.S. adults say "mobile manners" are worse now than a year ago, according to a recent Intel survey. 

"There's a fundamental mismatch between the 20th century workplace we've inherited and the technologies of our lives. There are no rules yet, no shared etiquette," said Cathy Davidson, a Duke professor of English and interdisciplinary studies and author of the new book, "Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn."  "We're right on time to be seriously rethinking how we work in the 21st century workplace."

While technology has facilitated the fusion of home life and work life, it also has created a 24-hour workday, where constant connectivity is expected. The result? Anxiety.

"We're all stressed out, and we should be. We have a lot more different kinds of information to deal with, and we're working in two systems - one old, one new - at the same time," Davidson said. 

The rising number of Internet-connected mobile devices has led to an "always-on" culture with few agreed-upon rules. According to a survey conducted by Intel in February, nine out of 10 U.S. adults say they've seen people misuse mobile technology. Among the top gripes: emailing while walking and texting or typing while driving.

"We combine technologies in ways that are potentially harmful," said Dan Ariely, a Duke professor of psychology and behavioral economics. "When traffic slows down or the meeting gets redundant or somebody asks a stupid question, we think, `I can dedicate 50 percent of my attention to this and have the capacity to do other things.' Then we don't notice when something changes, and when the time comes to focus, we don't." 

See how one Duke department practices tech etiquette.

Sleek, powerful mobile devices increase the "illusion of competence," high-tech jugglers' belief that they can multitask effectively, Ariely said. But research shows that multitasking degrades performance: Multitaskers perform much worse on cognitive and memory tasks that involve distraction compared to people who focus on single tasks.

"That's the huge curse of trying to multitask while working and in meetings. Eventually nobody's doing anything useful," Ariely said. "The feeling that we need to be productive every moment actually makes us less productive."

To minimize distraction in the classroom, some faculty ask students to put away laptops - but that's not always the best approach, said Lynne O'Brien, director of academic technology and instructional services for Perkins Library.

Instructors are better off asking students to work together in pairs, calling on individuals and using other strategies to engage participants, so "you're at risk if you're not paying attention," O'Brien said.

That same strategy can be effective in managing workplace meetings, said Isabel Taylor, an OIT project manager trained in meeting facilitation.

"If your head is buried in your computer, you're sending out the message that you're really not available," Taylor said. "As a facilitator, I'll try to engage those who aren't participating, by saying things like, `Would you share your thoughts on this?'"

Meeting organizers can even request that participants put away their technology. "Once the devices are away, you can really connect with the people around the table," Taylor said.

New technology requires that individuals be more mindful of their own preferences about communication and to explicitly set expectations with colleagues. 

"There's a sense that every message coming in must be responded to immediately, though no one told us that. Everybody has different rules," Taylor said. "It's important to discuss your preferred method of communication and respect others' preferences."

Work groups can take steps to avoid ratcheting up the pressure of an "always on" workplace. 

"All of us spend far too much time responding to work email," O'Brien said. "People can access you 24 hours a day, and we don't have good mechanisms for screening what we have to pay attention to."

Her office, for example, developed new norms around managing email, including:

  • Use reply-all sparingly. 
  • Share interesting tidbits using the group's internal blog (not email). 
  • Indicate in the email header whether a message requires action or is just for information. 
  • Don't spam the entire work group with in/out-of-office emails.

She also set colleagues' expectations around instant messaging: "Some people say they can be more productive using IM to take care of a lot of small details quickly, but my staff knows that if it's that urgent, they should call on my cell."

While technology can exacerbate information overload, it also could prove part of the solution. In her book, Davidson, the professor of English and interdisciplinary studies, interviewed the head of user interface at Mozilla, who takes a unique approach: he separates his work onto three different computers. The first holds the code or work project he is focused on. On the second, located far enough away that he must physically move to another chair, is email. 

"Ergonomically, he knows it is important to move, but, more important, it means that his main work screen never changes," Davidson said. "The email screen is in constant motion from the outside world, but the work screen stays focused, and he returns to it without distraction."

His third computer, down the hall, is his "fun" computer, with Facebook and other diversions. A to-do list is programmed to pop up on the screen after five minutes, then 10 minutes (in larger type). The computer also is programmed to slow down each time the to-do list appears.

"We are users of tools. What makes us good at using these tools is what drives us crazy, because it also distracts us," Davidson said. "Now we're evolving new ways of working, but we need new tools to help us prioritize."

In the meantime, workers can focus on using technology for what it does best, said 

Jim Roberts, Duke's executive vice provost for finance and administration and self-described "multitasker on multiple devices." He uses those devices to boost productivity in limited ways. 

 "I'm constantly shepherding six to 10 things through various processes, and I have to have them all at a stage where if somebody said, 

`I need that now,' I know how I would finish it in 24 to 48 hours," Roberts said. "Having the digital and communication tools we have now makes that much more feasible than it was."

As technology changes the workplace, it also provides an ongoing opportunity to reassess how new tools fit with our human values and needs.

For Outten, that means encouraging his staff to call customers rather than send email, because talking through an issue can resolve it faster than a back-and-forth exchange of emails.

For Taylor, it's making a point of not checking work email at home.

For Laura Miller, a clinical research associate in the Duke Clinical Research Institute, it's leaving her BlackBerry at her desk every so often so she can walk up to visit a colleague who works on another floor.

"We've become so connected as a mobile society," Miller said. "Now we need to reconnect with ourselves and remember the common courtesies. We need to take time to think of others before we plug in."