Managers, when you talk to your employees, are you constantly checking your cell phone, or are they looking at theirs? It’s true that smart phones make our lives easier in many ways, with immediate access to information and news. We can instantly reach friends, co-workers and others from anywhere in the world, and we can multitask more effectively.

On the other hand, multitasking isn’t everything it’s cracked up to be. It has been shown to have a negative effect on our cognitive abilities, including mindfulness, academic performance and memory.

These handheld computers also impact the way we interact with others. While we have a wider network of contacts and “friends,” these expanded networks are often more superficial.

Even when they’re not in use, they influence our communication effectiveness. New research shows that just having your mobile device on the table and not looking at it can have bearing on the level of engagement you have with others.
Are You Present?

A 2014 study published in the journal Environment and Behavior“The iPhone Effect: The Quality of In-Person Social Interactions in the Presence of Mobile Devices,” examined the relationship between the presence of mobile devices during social interactions and the overall quality of the interactions. The authors were Shalini Misra, Jamie Genevie, and Miao Yuan of Virginia Tech; and Lulu Cheng of Monsanto. They took 100 pairs of individuals with an existing relationship and randomly assigned them to discuss either trivial matters or a topic of significance for 10 minutes in a public place. The authors then observed them from a distance to see whether a mobile device was used, touched or placed on the table during the conversation. After 10 minutes, participants completed a brief survey to assess the degree of connectedness and empathetic concern that they felt during their interaction.

Interesting Results
As stated in an article by Pooja Gupta (as reported on the Harvard Kennedy School’s Journalist’s Resource website), the study’s findings include:

  • Out of 100 pairs, 29 had mobile phones present during their conversations, while 71 did not. Overall, conversations without phones present were rated significantly better than those with phones present, controlling for age, gender, ethnicity, and mood. Those who conversed without a mobile phone present reported a higher level of connectedness.
  • Those who conversed in the absence of a mobile device felt a greater level of empathy for their partner. Additionally, those pairs with a close relationship reported lower levels of empathy with a mobile device present as compared to pairs with a more casual relationship.
  • The study did not find any significant effect of mobile phones during more meaningful conversations, as compared to more casual encounters.

“Even when they are not in active use or buzzing, beeping, ringing, or flashing, [digital devices] are representative of people’s wider social network and a portal to an immense compendium of information,” the researchers note. “In their presence, people have the constant urge to seek out information, check for communication, and direct their thoughts to other people and worlds. Their mere presence in a socio-physical milieu, therefore, has the potential to divide consciousness between the proximate and immediate setting and the physically distant and invisible networks and contexts.

The bottom line from the study is that conversations that take place in the absence of mobile communication technologies are significantly superior compared with those in the presence of a mobile device, above and beyond the effects of age, gender, ethnicity, and mood. People who had conversations in the absence of mobile devices reported higher levels of empathetic concern.

In addition, the better you know someone, the lower the level of “empathy” if the mobile device is present.

It makes sense when you think about it. If someone is glancing at their phone or has it out when you’re in a conversation with them, they’re basically telling you through non-verbal communication that whatever is happening elsewhere is more important than the conversation you’re having with them at that moment.

The Little Things
Sometimes, the smallest actions can have the largest impact. Something as seemingly inconsequential as putting your phone in your pocket when you’re talking to employees could have a much more profound impact than you could have imagined.

Give it a try and see if you notice a difference with your employees. Better yet, try it with your children or your spouse!