Are You a Part of Your Workplace—or Apart From It?


These days it’s pretty easy to zone out at work with all the technology right at our fingertips. Earbuds have become mainstay office wear—transporting workers to their own world without leaving their cubicles.

A frustrated colleague of mine said her co-workers not only wear headphones all day, but also use instant messaging for information exchanges with co-workers sitting just a few feet away.

Cones of silence have stunted real conversations.

Commenting about this phenomenon in a recent Harvard Business Review article, "Workers, Take Off Your Headphones," author Anne Kreamer noted, “If an employee is glued to her desk with headphones on, immersed in music and G-chatting with her best buddy, she is missing the opportunity to create relationships with people on the job.”

Don’t get me wrong. I believe in the power of technology. But I believe even more in the power of direct conversations to fuel relationships and results in the workplace.

Last week in a commencement address at Boston University, Google CEO Eric Schmidt advised graduates to unplug for one hour a day. “Engage with the world around you… feel… and taste… and smell… and hug what’s there, right in front of you – not what’s a click away,” he said.

If you know more about the playlist on your favorite Pandora station than the to-do-list for your work team’s latest project, then you’ve got a problem and need to recalculate. Here are some tips to help you unplug from technology and tune in to your team:

Assess yourself. How cemented are your earbuds to your ears or your keyboard to your fingertips? Always? Most of the time? Some of the time?  Rarely? What’s your plugged-in rating? Assess your work practices and calculate the time you really spend “plugged-in” to you own private island. If you’re treading in the high-use zone, breaking free will be a tougher task than if you are an occasional user. Get started on your assessment with this quick poll.

Alarm yourself. Set your smartphone alarm for a walk-around break every two hours. Prompts like this will trigger your thinking (and hopefully, your actions) for making the break—and actually breaking free of those headphones. Unplug for 10 minutes and challenge yourself to double that downtime in a week. Remember: It’s tough to be a team player when you’ve distanced yourself from the team. Benefits really do await!

Avoid distractions. It’s easy to get sidelined by an incoming call or text message on your smartphone, but don’t get sucked in. Make it a priority to stay the course of your commitment to give technology a break and tap in to real conversations and connections, face-to-face. Grab a big marker, write down your unplugged goal on a Post-it note and slap it on the screen of your desktop. Focus and just do it.

Pull the plug. Heading for bio-break? Leave those headphones behind. Wearing your techno-gear puts the kibosh on approachability. Bathrooms are great huddle zones. You can hear things there that don’t surface in cubicles. I learned quickly during my first corporate job that stalls and sinks foster amazing small talk that open you to new learning about the people and programs around you.

Make a schedule: Reserve in your daily calendar a time to unplug. Make a practice of blocking that time so that you and others see it. Alternate time slots to ensure that you see and hear different activity from different team members and customers.

Make a date. Now that you’ve got the time cemented on your calendar, make a date to meet a co-worker in the break room or at the coffee shop around the corner to get unplugged and catch up about a project or to brainstorm an idea. Add the person’s name, title and topic for discussion. You’ll think twice about breaking that date if it’s got teeth.

You can do it! Unplug. Discover the treasure of meaningful workplace relationships.

Linda Dulye is internationally recognized for helping many companies go spectator free. A former communications leader for GE and Allied Signal, Linda established Dulye & Co.   in 1998 with a practical, process-driven approach for improving communications and collaboration through an engaged workforce— a formidable competitive advantage, that she calls a Spectator-Free Workplace™.