Phone, computer, tablet—are multiple screens at work a distraction?
There was a time when Sriram Rajamani’s 1-hour, 30-minute commute to work from north Bengaluru to the centre of the city felt like a complete waste of time. Today, multiple devices help him use the time advantageously. “While my driver braves the traffic, I work on my laptop with a tethered connection via my phone and use it to answer emails, schedule the day’s meetings and get work done,” says Rajamani, managing director, Microsoft Research India Lab.
With the emergence of new technologies, we are all becoming multi-screen creatures, moving from one device or screen to another for all sorts of activities in a typical day. Multi-screen behaviour has become the norm, according to a 2012 consumer insight study by Think With Google, Google’s research arm on data insights. The study suggests there are two main modes of multi-screening—sequential screening, with people moving between devices, and simultaneous screening, with them using multiple devices simultaneously.
Rajamani, a sequential screener, keeps his phone on silent mode in office and focuses on work over the laptop. He uses a Microsoft Surface Book to write, read, email, browse and code. Once he reaches home, he shuts down the laptop and uses his phone to check urgent emails. Switching between his laptop and phone minimizes distractions and enhances his productivity. “Alternating between multiple devices actually works well for me,” says the scientist.
Meet the multi-screeners
The advent of cloud computing has made it possible for people to access information across different locations and devices. This means you can access your office from wherever you are, on whatever device you may have, through whichever network is available. According to the Google study, the device we choose is often driven by our context—where we are, what we want to accomplish, and the amount of time needed.
Take, for instance, the time when Sujaya Banerjee, founder and chief executive officer (CEO) of Capstone People Consulting, a human resources consultation company, urgently needed a video she had made earlier for a meeting with top officials of a bank. She searched for it on her iPhone 7’s cloud storage, emailed it to herself, opened it on the laptop provided and added it to her presentation at the meeting. “It took just a few seconds, but it wouldn’t have been possible if I wasn’t used to working across devices,” says Banerjee.
Organizations that have embedded data and technology in everything they do, encourage the use of multiple devices at work.
Sanjay Sethi, chief executive officer and co-founder of ShopClues, an e-commerce platform, switches seamlessly between his iPhone 7 and MacBook Pro and keeps both in sync. “I run a digital company so a lot of work happens through smart devices, and we encourage those within the company,” he says. Another tech start-up founder, Rahul Mehra, works similarly, alternating between his Samsung Galaxy S8, iPad 2 and Macbook Pro. “Any information I require is just a quick search away on any device and can be synced, updated and shared in real time,” says Sethi, adding that he encourages his team to get hands-on experience of new tech, use multiple devices and do everything digitally, including maintaining attendance.
Many devices create disorder
While sequential screening is more common behaviour, simultaneous screeners are a growing number as well. The Google study has shown that almost 78% use multiple devices to multitask.
Shivakumar Ganesan, the CEO and founder of Exotel, a cloud telephone platform, has coined a term for the vast number of devices he uses to communicate with his team. His “personal DIY communication system” consists of a Micromax 32-inch television, Google Chromecast, a Logitech webcam, a Jabra Bluetooth speaker, a Dell laptop, a Plantronics Voyager in-ear Bluetooth, a Kinovo Bluetooth and an OnePlus 2 mobile phone. “In my car, my phone pairs with the Kinovo so I can take hands-free calls. While travelling, it’s the in-ear Plantronics that ensures my calls continue,” he explains. As soon as he enters his office, Ganesan’s phone connects to his Jabra Bluetooth speaker so he can continue taking calls while working on his laptop. By screen-casting through Chromecast, the office TV can be used for Google Hangouts and Skype calls.
Ganesan says he’s able to work efficiently with more technology because he loves gadgets and makes them work for him, but that might not hold true for others. “Devices are just machines and their efficiency is up to the humans using them,” he says.
Juggling multiple devices, however, can lead to some amount of confusion too. Recently, when Delhi-based Sohrab Sitaram’s net connection wasn’t working on his mobile phone, he ended up opening his laptop to send an urgent email. “I thought I had handled the situation, only to realize that because of switching between my laptop and smartphone, I had responded to a completely different email, not the urgent one. I had also mixed up names and email addresses,” says the 41-year-old CEO and director of Keventers, a milkshake company.
This incident reinforced Sitaram’s belief that having several devices at your disposal can be distracting. “Multiple devices add to the noise, leading to an overload of information and confusion rather than enhanced productivity,” he says.
Just a tool
By themselves , multiple devices don’t make anyone more effective, says Bhavdeep Singh, CEO of Fortis Healthcare in Gurugram, adjacent to Delhi. “By that logic, if we carry three-four phones, a couple of tablets and laptops, we should all be more efficient, but that doesn’t happen.” Technology is simply a tool, a resource and an enabler. It’s not a prerequisite for success or efficiency. “Like anything else, it all depends on the individual using them,” says Singh, who carries two phones, one for work and the other for personal use.
A 2015 study, The Developing Brain In A Multitasking World, supports his point of view. Published in the academic journal Developmental Review, it studies the effects of multitasking on the brain, concluding that though the activity of switching constantly from one device to the other may have some performance benefits, it may interfere with the accomplishment of sustained goals that require focus and longer attention spans.
“With multiple devices, you constantly switch your attention from one task to another,” says Manoj Kumar Sharma, additional professor, department of clinical psychology, National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences, Bengaluru. “If the task requires more focus, this can lead to fatigue or inefficiency.”
No one knows this better than the 52-year-old best-selling author William Dalrymple, who has left his rather well-furbished study to write in a shed at the far end of the garden in his Delhi house, all because of his Samsung Galaxy S. “Smartphones are the biggest, most disastrous obstruction to a writer’s life,” he says, “Writing is hard, so all writers try to find any opportunity to get distracted. Internet and social media entice you to put down your writing indefinitely,” he says. Keeping a flight of stairs between his smartphone and himself is the only way he can concentrate.
Post lunch, and in the evenings, Dalrymple allows himself the use of his phone to browse social media, respond to emails, etc.
Sharma’s advice: Focus on one thing. “If you want to solve something or create something, your brain needs to keep itself away from the constant stimuli that internet-connected devices offer,” he says.