At the beginning of a recent business meeting — outside of our company — many of the attendees placed their smartphones on top of the conference room table. One attendee set up his laptop and began typing away. As the meeting progressed, phones were buzzing (with attendees doing the occasional glance to see what notification they were receiving), and the one attendee continued to immerse himself in whatever was on his laptop screen. He seemed oblivious to his surroundings and that a business meeting was being attempted around him.
It was not my meeting, but I witnessed in amazement this irritating, disruptive and unproductive approach to an in-person group conversation. It dawned on me how far we have regressed relative to quality conversations, attention spans and just plain manners.
Somehow, over the past few years, it has evidently become acceptable for attendees to ensure they don’t miss a text or email during a meeting. There was a time when the content and presentation at meetings superseded texts, tweets or emails.
In fact, it seems that just about everywhere, the use of mobile devices is reducing face-to-face conversations. And, if it’s not the smartphone, messages sent from laptops, desktops and other mobile devices are serving as the core of our daily business and personal communications.
The dependence on electronic communication is easy to understand because it is simple, fast and convenient. Yet, in so many instances the true content and context of the intended message get lost in cyberspace. Before the digital age, business was conducted very differently than it is today:
• Conversations were in-person or on the telephone.
• Attendees at presentations listened to the speakers rather than “multi-tasking” on their mobile devices.
• We read and digested information prior to making decisions rather than reacting to real-time news through mobile device notifications.
• We got to know individuals with whom we did business rather than learning about them through social media and network portals like LinkedIn.
• Attention spans were greater than three seconds, which allowed us to listen and be focused.
• Real relationships and friendships developed, rather than relying on social media networks for recognition and companionship.
• Thank-you notes were handwritten, mailed and personalized.
• Sales presentations/pitches were delivered in-person versus the “daily dozen” spam emails that produce impersonal, hard-sell sales pitches from people we have never met.
• People had the courage to have the tough conversations in-person rather than using the keyboard to deliver the message.
• We recognized that a good career was a long journey of success and failures. Instant gratification was not in our dictionary.
• The telephone was used to talk and listen to others. No games, emojis, texts, emails or videos. We survived just fine.
Conducting business prior to digital communication was certainly not perfect, but it was simpler. Today the “machines” are smarter than we are, and they are getting smarter every moment. There are those who suggest that there will be a tipping point sometime soon when the fragile balance between our ability to compete with machines will tilt in the machines’ favor. We may already be at that point. And, it does not help that the next few up-and-coming generations have been raised basically with an “electronic pacifier” in their hands.
Technology and digital applications are wonderful (and amazing) when utilized to complement and support our day-to-day activities at and outside of work. If we allow the best of who we are as human beings to shine through, while utilizing technology, the combination could be impressive.
For workers and businesses to remain relevant in the future, we will need to rely on what is our greatest strength — all the characteristics that make us truly human. If we continue to set these aside and allow technology to be a cheap substitute for our interactions and communications with others, we will lose more jobs, businesses and, worst of all, ourselves.
Pat Perry is ERC’s chairman and author of Re-Shape Re-Define Re-Imagine (patperrybook.com).