Want to Boost Productivity? Consider ‘No-Tech’ Days

5 tips for preventing smartphone- and e-mail-related distractions

Aliah D. Wright By Aliah D. Wright July 14, 2017
Want to Boost Productivity? Consider ‘No-Tech’ Days

When she was promoted to manager, LaKiesha Tomlin had so many responsibilities facing her at once that she felt overwhelmed.

"Over time I realized that most of my distractions came from e-mail notifications," said Tomlin, an engineering hiring manager in the aerospace industry and owner of ThrivingAmbition, a St. Louis-based career consultancy.

Now, Tomlin turns off her e-mail notifications and the sound that accompanies them.

More than 269 billion e-mails are sent daily, according to a report from technology market research firm The Radicati Group. That's roughly 72 electronic missives a day for every one of the estimated 3.7 billion e-mail senders worldwide. Cornerstone on Demand's State of Workplace Productivity Report found that 47 percent of surveyed employees said they were overwhelmed by technology and that 16 percent felt technology hurt their ability to be productive.

Some companies are working to eliminate distractions, as well.

"At Imagetoner.com we believe in the power of concentration, and smartphones tend to be a distraction," said Daniela Arango, the company's HR and PR director, in an interview with SHRM Online. "As a solution, we created a policy which states that all employees must stay off their smartphones while in the workplace."

The Delaware-based e-commerce company with 23 employees specializes in selling discount toner supplies. Employees "are permitted to use [smartphones] on their break times," she said. The company created the policy to "decrease the amount of time spent on messaging apps, social media and other sites that are in no way related to the employee's tasks. We also suggest checking e-mails only three times a day—morning, midday and afternoon."

Employees "understand that if they concentrate during office hours their work will be much easier and all processes will run smoother," Arango added. "Most of them simply eliminate temptation and store their phones away all day."

How to Stay on Task

While it works at Arango's company, shutting out technology can be hard for many employees. In a 2016 study, researchers said smartphone users touch their devices 2,617 times every day.

Getting them to stop while at work, some say, is necessary for productivity.

"Employers should encourage employees to set goals for how long to focus on a task without distraction and to use only one screen at a time," said John A. Challenger, chief executive officer of Chicago-based outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. "Employers can also install anti-distraction programs to help workers remain on task. While these measures are not fool-proof, they can lead to a more productive workday and better time management."

Consider 'No-Tech' Days

Another way companies can ensure time is spent on important tasks is to establish "no-tech" days a few times a month, Challenger said.

That's what LaSalle Network's Jessica Schaeffer does at her company. The Chicago-based staffing, recruiting and culture firm's chief of staff tells SHRM Online that once a quarter the company has a "no e-mail" day.

"This means no e-mail, no instant messaging ... and it's incredible," she said. "Some people 'cheat,' of course, but I relish these days. We take a 20-minute break at noon to check our e-mail and see if there's anything pressing that needs to be addressed, but otherwise we stay out of our inbox. We set up an out-of-office message explaining what we're doing and asking anyone who sends an e-mail to call us. The point is to build relationships with our contacts externally [and] … internally. It makes us more efficient, productive and effective."

Challenger suggested the following five ways to prevent technology-related distractions at work:

1. Take Away Employees' Devices

"'No-tech' days may not be popular at first, but the result is a workforce dedicated to solving pressing issues and making decisions that will contribute to the company's overall strategy and potentially positively impact the bottom line," Challenger said.

2. Write Instead of Type

A 2014 study published in Psychological Science called The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking reveals that writing notes by hand during meetings helps employees retain information better than if they typed them. "Moreover, your teammates will view writing notes more favorably than if you are on a tablet or computer, where you might be checking e-mail or social media," Challenger points out.

3. Plan, Plan, Plan

Ask employees to plan how they'll start and finish their days without the distractions associated with using e-mail or a smart device. Will employees be allowed to use their smartphones and check e-mail at designated times? What about telephone calls? What are some solutions to problems that may arise from establishing a "no tech" day?

4. Find an App for That

Getting employees to shut off their phones may not be easy. But you may be able to ease them into it with productivity apps. As SHRM Online reported, OFFr incentivizes employees to stay off their phones for certain periods of time by rewarding them with prizes like gift cards or a free lunch when they do. (A timer records how long users have the app open without doing anything else on their phones.) There are apps that block out noise with calming music (Noisli) and set to-do lists with timers (FocusList, Remember the Milk, Forest). There are apps and websites that notify you when you haven't stayed on task (Asana) or haven't taken a break (Do Nothing for Two Minutes).

5. Lead by Example  

If you want your workers to spend more time thinking about important decisions and less time being distracted by e-mail and smartphones, then use these technologies less yourself. Think twice before responding to or sending e-mails and texts, Challenger suggests, especially after hours.


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