Device-Free Management 101

Organizations are rediscovering the importance of face-to-face interaction.

Organizations are rediscovering the importance of face-to-face interaction.
“That feeling of ‘clicking’ that we all have had when interacting with people might actually have real neural basis.”

Have you heard about the man who nearly ran into a bear?

A California fellow not long ago was in the midst of that ubiquitous head-down dance we now call walking – attention riveted to the device in the palm of his hand, eyes darting up every so often to avoid bumping into a lamp post or, in this fellow’s case, a 400-pound black bear.

Vaz Terdandenyan was walking down the street, absorbed in his little screen, when he nearly collided with a black bear that was on the loose in the neighborhood. He looked up from all his LOLs and smiley emoticons just in time to OMG and run!

True story, caught on video. A story that makes you think that maybe all these smart machines are making us dumb.

Still, there’s no going back. When I asked my daughter recently if she was going to take part in the “National Day of Unplugging” on March 1, a day when we were urged to untether ourselves for 24 hours from our smartphones, laptops and other gadgets, she rolled her eyes and asked, “What’s next, Dad, no cellphones at the dinner table?”

This whole smartphone thing is out of control – there is just no place these tiny instruments of technology won’t go. Lavatory stalls and confessionals are just too much. Walk into an elevator – all heads down, surfing. Gone forever are those awkward moments filled with meaningless chatter – “Can you believe the weather we’re having?” Going through airport security, as pockets and briefcases are emptied into those ridiculous bins on the conveyor belt, it reminds me of a Black Friday sale at Best Buy. It’s now not even cool to leave a voicemail. My daughter tells me, “Just text me. You’re so 90’s, Dad.”

With five kids, my own house sounds like some 80’s techno-mixer of submarine sonar pings and pinball machines with the occasional “old phone ring” as bass. You have to love those personalized ringtones. My friend’s ex has the ominous “da-dum, da-dum” tune from “Jaws” set when he calls – I guess he won’t be in the family Christmas card picture again this year.

All of these digital bursts of information – the tweets, texts, alerts, ad infinitum – activate primitive impulses within us to respond to each ping of our inbox as potential opportunities and threats. Our brain rewards all that stimulation with little squirts of dopamine that researchers say can be addictive. Truly amazing! Are we really that important?

Coincidence that Pope Benedict XVI joins Twitter and a few months later loses interest in work?

Joking aside, there was no surprise when the new pope was announced as pontiffs always have been, with a smoke signal sent out to thousands of joyous pilgrims waiting, together, in St. Peter’s Square. The fact is, there are moments in life that are too important and too complex to be mediated by – or as is frequently the case, interrupted by – technology.

Such events, like human relationships, can be rich, messy, irrational and demanding. And while texting, e-mailing, posting or the like can clean and clarify the message, make more efficient and expedient the exchange of information, there is a magic that’s only possible when interacting with real humans, in real time, and in the real, tactile physical world we inhabit.

That’s why I wasn’t surprised when Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo, decreed seven months into her job that she wants employees to show up at work instead of telecommuting. This wasn’t, I’d bet, an off-the-cuff commandment; it was a data-supported decision reflecting a reality that the most value was being created by workers collaborating – in the hallways, offices and kitchens, face-to-face, one conversation at a time.

We humans need to look into other people’s eyes and hear their voices; to share a silence without using it to check our smartphones. Walk across the office or send an e-mail? The question will inevitably arise in the course of one’s workday. And when it does, maybe once in a while we ought to go device-free, taking that walk.

Oh, who am I kidding? Wearable computers, Google glasses, ubiquitous computing, anywhere, anytime, anyplace – and, “look Mom, no hands.” At least with this next wave our heads will be in an upright position. Next up – synthetic telepathy. You wouldn’t even have had to read this. We will communicate through thought transmission, “Twilight Zone” style. #GTG#@oldceo#iGiveup!

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