Multi-tasking or just bad manners?

Call me old fashioned but I was taught at school that it was polite, when someone is talking, at least to look as though you’re paying attention. Recently I attended an external breakfast event where I could barely hear the speaker because of the person next to me loudly tapping on her Blackberry. And no, she wasn’t tweeting the speaker’s smart ideas, she was dealing with work e-mail (I confess I had a  crafty peep – lack of data security being one good reason not to e-mail in public).

My neighbour on the other side, meanwhile, was distracting me visually with his astounding ipad dexterity, surely destined to be an Olympic support for the couch surfing generation. He was locked in digital warp drive, hypersurfing profile searches on the speaker, checking out her company website, twitter feed, facebook account. Everything short of actually listening to what she was saying.

I know that our digital economy supposedly makes us all more productive. But really, much of this so-called multi-tasking is simply bad manners. You could call it making a virtue out of attention deficit syndrome. While I recognise that many people now use their tablet devices for note taking, there’s a crucial difference when compared with a traditional  notepad and pencil. Touchpad typing for most people means that you’ve lost eye contact with your speaker. And when that happens, you’re not really listening.

When  I started my career, (not that long ago I hasten to add), going on a business trip often meant being out of contact with the office for days on end. Meanwhile back at the ranch, correspondence stacked up in your office intray. I remember returning to my hotel room at night to find handwritten notes slipped under the door by the hotel concierge, asking me to call my boss in the morning. Seems like a lifetime ago now. But just because we have the ability to  be always contactable does that mean we have to use it?

I believe that digital technology has  damaged our ability to be accountable for how we use our time. No one can criticise you for spending a day taking part in an external meeting, if you use technology to do exactly what you would have done at your home base. How many readers have experienced the craziness of travelling to somewhere in a different timezone, only to find yourself spending half your day in conference calls with your home base and half the night catching up with email? Oh, for the old note under the door from the concierge.

While the principle that no-one is indispensable is as true today as it ever was, some managers try to create a cult of indispensability by being virtually present even when physically absent. Yet how do other members of the team learn how to deputise if the boss is ‘always on’?  In reality, digitally omnipresent bosses disempower their teams.

So do all our digital aids promote increased productivity or do they encourage poor decision making and a fast track to burnout? Only time will tell for the always on generation. My final message for my frenetic friends from the breakfast meeting: ‘stop tapping and listen, you might actually learn something.’