With multiple devices scrambling for your attention, how can you improve your digital wellbeing both in and out of the office?
Is one of your resolutions this year to improve your digital wellbeing and unplug from your devices a little more?
Chris Flack is the co-founder of Irish company UnPlug, which aims to empower people to develop positive tech habits, sustained focus, enhanced communication and higher-quality downtime.
UnPlug also features in a new digital wellbeing course as part of Google’s Digital Garage.
Flack spent the first 15 years of his career working in large tech consulting firms. “I noticed the impacts that technology was having on my own behaviour and the teams I was working in,” he said. “In 2016, I joined forces with Aidan Healy, a psychologist by background, to develop a range of programmes to support individuals and organisations [to] work smarter in an always-connected world.”
Flack said that UnPlug has a strong focus on individuals producing a high quality of work by improving attention span and organisational culture as opposed to simply pushing harder. “I think society is starting to move away from extremes such as ‘churn and burn’ as they are not sustainable.”
Even though we all know that being ‘always on’ is bad for our mental health, technological advances and the ability to be always accessible make it hard for employees to escape from work.
A 2018 survey from the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development found that 74pc of HR professionals see the positives of technology for the flexibility it provides employees. However, 87pc said that this technology has created an environment where we struggle to switch off.
“There’s a parallel work culture of ‘busy being busy’ which is accelerated and enabled further by our technology,” said Flack. “For example, it’s very easy for us to react to notifications and emails all day, and ‘feel’ very busy; however, we might not actually get that much done.”
He also pointed out that technology is neutral and it’s up to both employers and employees to manage how we spend our time, both through working policies and individual boundaries.
“By creating these simple boundaries, we ensure that we are more focused on the task at hand, whether delivering quality work or spending quality time with family,” he said.
What can employers do for digital wellbeing?
Government policy is already starting to make a difference for society. In France, the right to disconnect has ensured that employees can take control of their use of technology outside of office hours. In Ireland last year, an employee was awarded €7,500 based on demands to use email outside of office hours.
But Flack pointed out that this is not a simple conversation, since every organisation and person has different technological needs. “Before you make any change, you need to assess your current situation. What is your current tech usage? How did you form your tech habits? Why might they be hard to change?”
He added that a simple takeaway for employers is to get their employees to measure how much and what types of technology they’re using with Google’s digital wellbeing tools. “We have worked with several organisations who have used similar tools to assess how much tech people are using in and out of work to propose change, to ensure quality focus at work and downtime at home,” he said.
What can individuals do to help switch off?
While employers have a role to play in the ‘always on’ culture, individuals have to take responsibility for their own digital wellbeing, too. Flack said sometimes physical boundaries can be one of the best ways to start. “If you struggle with tech in certain parts of your life – for example, when spending time with loved ones or when going to sleep – then create a physical boundary. For example, remove phones from the dinner table or bedroom.”
However, he said it’s important to make this a slow change to form a more solid habit, rather than start off too extreme. “Maybe a few days of the week at first. Habits are formed through reward, and so we need to experience and enjoy the change first – there are better ways to spend your time than playing Angry Birds in the bedroom!”
Speaking personally, Flack said his own compulsive relationship with technology developed from constant task-switching, so he has taken steps to reduce this. “I minimise how many tabs I have open by using a tool such as the free Chrome add-in, xTab. I use Google’s digital wellbeing tools to only have access to work tools at work and social tools at home.” He also works in focus periods of 25 minutes rather than continuously switching between tasks.
Finally, at UnPlug, the team practises what it preaches. “We have rules-based systems in place within the team so that when people are on holiday or not working, it’s covered by someone else and … we have a no-device policy in our meetings to encourage focus and empathy.”