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Cellphone vibration syndrome and other signs of tech addiction

May 24, 2012 06:11 AM ET

Is there a metric that tells you whether you are overusing information technology, or is it only a problem if it interferes with your social interactions? If it interferes with a lot of things -- your social interactions, your work product and your family responsibilities - those are the kinds of signs that you always look for in addiction and compulsive behavior.

How do I recognize this problem in the workplace? You recognize it in co-workers who can't go more than five minutes at a meeting without checking their phone. You recognize it in co-workers who get constantly distracted in the middle of a task, and the distraction usually comes from an email or text, or an internal need to check something on the Web. It really comes down to the business world as sort of rudeness, or inattentiveness, or lack or productivity or reduced productivity.

Are there steps managers can take to mitigate it in the workplace? Absolutely. What I think managers need to do is the following: If you are having problems at your meetings, which most managers are because your staff constantly has their Blackberries, iPhones, laptops and iPads there, and you know that they aren't just taking notes, what you need to be doing is something I call a tech break. This means that everybody brings their technology to the meeting, and gets one minute to two minutes to check in with your technology, and then you turn it off and upside down in front of you. And usually starting after 15 minutes of meeting, there is another one to two minute tech break, and then 15 minutes of more meeting and then another tech break. This starts to train your staff that the downside of not checking in every five seconds isn't as bad as they thought. Eventually you can lengthen the time without breaks to 20 minutes, to 25 and to 30 minutes - potentially 30 minutes. I've never seen anybody get it longer than 30.

Is this something businesses are beginning to do formally? Absolutely. It takes some training because their staffs are so hooked [into] these devices that it's no immediate success, but eventually people get it.

Are people who work in information technology at greater risk of developing problems in this area? No, I don't think so. I think everybody is. On some level, software developers may even have an easier time, because they have a bit more focus or more need to focus. But I can honestly say the research shows that software developers focus about three to five minutes before they switch tasks, and that's about what we find with students and medical students studying. I think we're at the point where we carry something in our pockets that is more powerful than any of us ever imagined.

A lot of companies are developing wired workplaces, in the sense that employees can get access to their work regardless of whether it's a company-owned device or a personal smartphone. Won't the bring-your-own-device (BYOD) push exacerbate the problem? I do believe it probably will. I think it's (BYOD) a good idea. Businesses are starting to realize that it's nice to have a dedicated Blackberry just for your work, but it's also nice to have your employees to be on 24-by-7 because they are carrying the device they're using. I do think that's going to be a problem because then you're multiplying it by two, your device is both your personal device and business device so there is twice as much free-floating anxiety.

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