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Dealing with downtime in an always-on world

02 Mar

This is my column in LMD Magazine, published in March.

LMD Magazine - Blog Buzz - Angelo FernandoConsidering all the time we spend online trying to be productive, it maybe a good idea to think about what we might do with our downtime when we are offline – off the grid, so to speak. I come across plenty of discussion on this, where people – especially in HR divisions – wrestle with the concept of that work-life balance.

Some make a case for there not being a work-life balance as such, because work and life have collided and the two aspects of life can’t be easily pried apart. In other words, a work-life imbalance is more the norm!

And if you buy this, you will most likely agree too that there is no difference between online and offline.

You are in a nice quiet restaurant with your family, but pull your Blackberry out every few minutes to check on the incoming stream of emails and texts. Your kid may ask to play with the iPhone… and before you know it, you’re forwarding a YouTube video to a friend.

Or you are relaxing on a towel on the beach, but feel compelled to snap into citizen-journalist mode and take a picture of some dude and upload it on to Facebook. Or if you’re into status updates, you ‘check in’ to a location using Foursquare, even if there’s no apparent benefit.

Faced with this magnetic pull, and the urge to be online while you are offline every moment of the day, where do you find that elusive downtime?

While driving? Forget it! They may have been one of the few insulated spaces in which you could happily be off the grid in the days gone by, but cars are now coming with smart dashboards to help us stay connected.

One company, Hughes Telematics, is working on ‘in-dash applications’ that will keep drivers updated on a slew of communications or travel-related news and issues. These include Twitter integration, iPhone controls for passengers who want to change the music, check the pollution index outside or cite emissions data… and so on!

Another company, Visteon, has the ultimate iPad in-car device. It’s a docking station with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth that turns your iPad into a second dashboard to help you interact with the vehicle’s electronic controls. This could include engine information, GPS directions or the ability to pull in external information such as web radio… and even make phone calls!

This so-called ‘embedded connectivity’ could make for smart driving… or make it highly distracting for the man or woman at the wheel, depending on your perspective.

BRAIN POWER.
Few like to venture into this area for fear of being branded as Luddites. But sometimes it’s good to hit that ‘pause’ button, and wonder just where we are going with so much technology in our lives.

A recent study on downtime by the University of California points to how brains function better when they break away from constant activity. “Almost certainly, downtime lets the brain go over experiences it’s had, solidify them and turn them into permanent long-term memories,” says Loren Frank, Assistant Professor at the university’s Department of Physiology.

Learning, he contends, diminishes as a result of non-stop stimulation. About two decades ago, many spoke of ubiquitous computing as a good thing. Computer devices would become so embedded in human environments that we would not need to enter ‘machine environments’ to engage with them.

CONVERSATIONS
It is very easy to make fun of teenagers who can’t stop texting, even while they are spending time ‘alone’ with a certain someone. But the truth is, adults are getting far more addicted to digital tools, to the point that it’s impossible to get them to pay attention to the real – as opposed to the virtual – situation.

Sometimes, this even distracts us from large physical objects that are in front of us. A hilarious example of this is captured on video, where a girl fell into a fountain at a shopping mall while she was busy texting (if you want to watch this, just Google the words in the previous sentence!).

Texting in church used to be disallowed, since mobile phones were supposed to be turned off anyway. Today, some progressive churches in the US are experimenting with it, asking young people to text a question after the sermon – they’re just trying to be more interactive, I suppose! But whatever happened to asking the congregation to raise their hands?

In our zeal to be interactive, are we going too far by trying to promote conversations and interaction as full-time activities, leaving little room in our lives for offline thinking? At the end of last year, in JWT’s annual list of ‘100 things to watch for in 2011’, the ad agency pointed to digital downtime as being a big trend. This was somewhat related to another trend it called ‘digital interventions’. This refers to friends and family members staging interventions to take a person offline, because they sense it is necessary to help the person log off!

REALITY CHECK
Maybe it’s time for a reality check – even in a column like this, that by definition covers digital communications! I meet with organisations that are looking to find ways to be more digital, and I have to admit that I have advised and coached people on how to be more (and I put this word within quotes for good reason) ‘productive’ by using digital strategies.

But I am acutely aware that there is a downside to all of this, especially if we go headlong into all things digital and ignore the rich analogue, traditional communications opportunities swirling around us. Becoming digital just because we can, and turning everything into a relentless social-media stream is not the answer to our communication problems.

In fact, sometimes the opposite is true. The answer to a particular communications problem might be to get off our digital high horses and tune into the analogue world around us. The customer-service person could assume that there are no complaints this week because no one has emailed a complaint or posted a rant via Twitter.

The truth is that there might be an ugly customer problem out there being passed around word-of-mouth channels in taxi cabs and trains that no one is paying attention to (but you wouldn’t hear it, would you, if you’re in the cab or train with a pair of noise-cancelling headphones?)

Spending a portion of our day offline might be a habit we soon need acquire – or require – our employees to cultivate. Being plugged-in doesn’t mean shutting out the rest of the world. It’s so basic that HR people don’t even think it’s necessary to instruct new recruits to do. But at the rate at which our offline lives are being infiltrated with online tools, digital downtime may be one of the most productive issues today.

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