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Aidan Healy, Co-Founder of Unplug


DATE: 29 November, 2019

  •  Pamela Byrne, Chair of ACESA, welcomed everyone and introduced the guest speaker, Aidan Healy, co-founder of Unplug.
  • Aidan Healy presented on the topic of ‘Taking Control of Technology in an Always Connected World’.

Detailed Notes on Aidan’s Presentation:

  • Aidan introduced himself and Unplug. He’s a psychologist by background, and worked in healthcare in the early 2000s, prior to founding Unplug.
  • There was a big focus at that time on the positive changes that technology would bring – positive disruption.
  • 2007 was a big year re. how we engage with technology as a consumer product. Very significant changes – Apple launched the iPhone at the start of the year; Google launched the Android platform towards the end of the year.  2007: 120m smartphones sold worldwide; 2017: 1.7bn
  • These devices had much faster access to the internet – in 2007, average video would have taken 48 minutes to download.
  • Now, after years of high demand for the latest technologies, we’re starting to see some challenges. One of the words of the year in 2018 (Oxford Dictionary) was “techlash”, i.e. growing negativity around technology.  Facebook has dropped from having one of the top reputations in the world in 2016, to being in the bottom 10 today.
  • We have more technology than ever before, but this doesn’t necessarily translate into impact.
  • Aidan outlined three particular challenges that we see in our work as a result of technology:
  1. Technology time all of the time.
  • The vision for the smartphone was “your life in your pocket” (Steve Jobs). But, when you survey the average user, you find a much more complex relationship.  We like working remotely, but there’s a huge challenge of how to disconnect from work outside of traditional working hours.  Huge impact on personal relationships and mental health. Loss of ‘psychological detachment’.  To really be present, to really be away from something, it takes a bit of time to transition (e.g. impact of a conference call while you’re on holidays).
  • In five years, the levels of people experiencing job stress has doubled. For one in 5 couples that presented for marriage counselling to Accord, technology had become a factor in their relationships.
  • Aidan spoke about recent media reports re. potential new law on “right to disconnect”. Similar law was initiated in France; has also been implemented in Spain and Italy.  Essentially, it means organisations have to agree with their workers on their rights to switch off; publish a charter of good practice.  Some big rulings on this, e.g. €60k awarded to one Rentokill employee in France, who didn’t pick up their phone out-of-hours.  Recent ruling in Labour Court in Ireland: €7,500 awarded for breaches of Organisation of Working Time Act – employee was sending a lot of out-of-hours emails and wasn’t called up on it by management.
  1. How technology can overload and distract us.
  • Idea of “I didn’t go looking for that information, and yet somehow I found myself consuming it”. A lot of your day, as CEO, can be spent on consuming information that’s not the best use of your time.
  • Concept of “collaborative overload” (Harvard Business Review): the more helpful you are, and the more quickly you respond to emails, the more emails you receive.
  • 3 of the top 4 things that workers waste time on are technology-related. Constant interruptions; constant multi-tasking. A residue of that interruption can stay with us for up to 20 minutes at a time.
  • Employees are getting less and less time to think, between meetings and managing their inboxes. Predominance of ‘shallow’ work (tasks performed while distracted) over deep work.
  1. Blurred expectations around new forms of digital communication.
  • Not always positive to have an immediate response to what you’re feeling in that moment.
  • What is a reasonable response time to emails?
  • Values binds, e.g. is it appropriate to use emojis at work? Need to have these conversations or there can be very significant consequences.
  • Research from Harvard University on how organisations become always connected. If we don’t have conversations about what’s expected, we see some very unusual behaviours that don’t align to our business values or results (e.g. timing of emails; response times; who to CC).

Aidan then asked attendees to consider the following question: in your own life or in your organisation, what has become a challenging tech behaviour?

  • What exactly is the challenge?
  • Why is this important to you? Why should it matter?
  • Who else might it be impacting? How is it impacting them?

The next part of the session focused on taking positive actions – developing better tech habits and better engagements with digital devices.  For organisations, there are strong benefits to having a “strong digital culture”.

  • Take ‘small moments’: even if you can shift 20 minutes a day, it will have a big impact on the time you ‘get back’.

Aidan outlined 3 solutions:

  1. How are you empowering people to engage with IT?
  • Sometimes the energy to ignore notifications and not check in is almost greater than the energy required to check in.
  • Most powerful social media notification: “Someone has tagged a photo of you…” – causes anxiety, causes alertness, almost compels you to check in.
  • We’re living in environments where we get constant pop-up notifications, and it’s almost impossible to ignore.
  • The unpredictability of this plays havoc with our brains. Our brain has started to associate technology notifications with positive feelings.  When the notifications are unpredictable, our brain wants to check in again and again.
  • We’re starting to see positive developments in the operating systems themselves, e.g. IOS will give you a full breakdown of your notifications or the ability to filter / schedule notifications.
  • A lot of organisations are now encouraging people to create a minimalist or tools-only home screen – no notifications on display.
  • HabitLab is a free product that has come out of Stanford University. It allows you to set up ‘interventions’ on sites such as Facebook; to reconfigure the landscape.
  • Sometimes, the smallest of changes can have a very big impact, e.g. a hospital that reduced the need for one click & saved 1700 hours of hospital time.
  • Research shows that when you turn off the triggers (the notifications), you get much more mindful, focused engagement. Disciplined, controlled rather than reactive, compulsive.
  1. How are employees supported in creating boundaries?
  • Aidan outlined BJ Fogg’s Behaviour Model (Stanford University). The easier you can make something to do, the more likely people will do it (e.g. one-click purchases).
  • The visual impact of a smartphone or device around us: “Having a smartphone within sight or within easy reach reduces a person’s ability to focus and perform tasks”.
  • As soon as one person picks up a device, others follow suit – subconscious triggers.
  • Twitter Ireland have implemented a device-free policy in many of their meetings.
  • Google Ireland’s Fionnuala Meehan has a “smart phone / dumb phone” policy. In the evenings, she remains contactable, but has swapped out to a much simpler device.
  • New product – credit-card size – called Lite Phone, which gives phone functionality but doesn’t have constant connectivity to the internet.
  • Aidan spoke about the need to create a physical boundary with the devices themselves.
  • Another positive trend is using technology to help us focus and reach our goals, e.g. setting daily time limits for social media sites.
  • How do we create boundaries, and encourage boundaries in our employees?
  • Aidan spoke about Slack and other companies being very clear on their values; on what they expect. Need for organisations to be equally clear.  g. Volkswagen in Germany as an extreme example – shutting down email servers at 5.30pm.
  1. How are you assessing your digital culture?
  • Aidan spoke about the idea of the “infinite scroll”. Recommendations or next episode queued up as soon as you’ve finished watching one.  No concept of an end or finish point.
  • Screen time features built into Android and iPhones help us to measure and understand our own behaviour. How are we doing this in organisations?
    • Seeing organisations creating quantitative measures, e.g. technostress scales.
  • Questions to ask employees after annual leave:
    • Did you take your time off as planned?
    • If not, what was the cause? How much time did you have to spend dealing with it?
    • What can we do differently?

Aidan summarised by saying the solution looks different in every organisation.  But common points: how are we educating and empowering people to engage with IT?  Do we have a shared set of tech values – have these been communicated?  And what is the process we have in place to measure accountability?  Even if you do nothing, the culture is happening in your organisation.  Employees often talk about not knowing what’s expected.  Leadership needs to step in and assert the values and culture.

The session then moved to Q&A.

A question was asked on what language to use to convince people to switch off (including young people).  Aidan suggested modelling the behaviour and having very clear family / organisational values, e.g. not using devices at the dinner table, at certain times, etc.  He will include some parenting links in the follow-up pack.

Another question was asked about implementing limits in an organisation – are there organisations Aidan knows of that have done this really well?  Aidan spoke about the idea of psychological security / safety: employees not taking holidays or switching off in the evenings because they don’t feel safe – they feel like they’ll miss something if they’re not always on.  If people feel anxiety being away, they will check in to relieve that anxiety.  Allianz in France have a 7am to 7pm rule: if you want to send something outside of that, you must delay delivery.  Implement boundaries like this, and make it a stigma to break them.  There’s often not a lot that can’t wait until 7am the following day.

One attendee spoke about their organisation’s policy of having no phones at senior management meetings.  Another spoke about trying to move everyone to paperless meetings, but how they’re finding these more disruptive, as people are getting alerts and emails throughout.  How do you balance ‘going green’ with getting people to switch off and be present during meetings?  Aidan spoke about ‘meeting mode’ settings on devices, where the meeting organiser can even see when attendees have turned off ‘meeting mode’.

One attendee spoke about a potential backlash from younger people now – resistance to having their photos shared online; desire to get away from it all; to really truly “go away”.

Aidan spoke about how devices are often used to stave off loneliness, boredom, anxiety, but how it’s sometimes good to sit with these emotions – it builds resilience.  With Generation Z entering the workforce, having grown up in this environment, how do you keep them in challenging situations?

Pamela Byrne wrapped up the meeting, and thanked Aidan for his very valuable input.

Aidan Healy’s presentation slides can be downloaded here.