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November 27, 2009

Is the workplace subverting social communications and intimacy?

Last night my friend was again giving me a ticking off for not having looked at his beloved TED website. Today, though, I did. The videos on its home page display an array of interesting subjects, but the one that caught my eye was Stefana Broadbent’s discussion on the universal use of IM, texting, Facebook and Twitter and the “spoiling of human intimacy”.

As an opener, let’s look at this lady’s credentials and then find out what she has to say on the subject: Stefana Broadbent is a digital ethnographer who, over the past twenty years has been investigating the evolution of digital activities in the workplace and at home to monitor the changes in social practices. Her TED biography describes her as: “a cognitive scientist, [who] has spent decades observing people as they use technology, both at home and in complex workspaces such as air-traffic control towers…that speaks volumes on the way we think about our relationships.”

Here I summarise five main aspects of Stefana’s research:
•    A typical user spends 80% of his or her time communicating with just four other people;
•    People use different communications technologies in distinct and divergent ways;
•    There has been a diminution of voice communication and an increase in written channels;
•    Instead of work invading our private lives, our private communications are now invading the workplace;
•    People in general do not like to work while on the move: hotel rooms and airports are not valued as appropriate environments for substantive work and are mainly used for email.

Based on her in-depth research about the changing relationship between work and social relationships that has irreducibly altered, there are now around one billion people in continuous technological contact. However, as Ms Broadbent’s research shows, up to eighty percent of these exchanges, regardless of the channel, are with only five people.

Among the psychological community, the worry is that these new forms of communication has led to emotional dependence, which for the obsessive is perhaps true; while the concerns of the sociologists are that “tele-cocooning” has bred a “retreat from public engagement”. Personally, I enjoy extreme use of communications technology during my time at work and then leave it alone entirely (except for the mobile in arranging venues with friends) and then enter entirely into verbal dialogue in the evenings and at weekends. What, may I ask, is so dependent and introverted about that?

Thankfully, I work for my own company so I can choose what method of communication I like, but that is not the case for the majority whose companies have long been concerned about the excessive use of company time to catch up with people using their own, private, digital space.

In Ms Broadbent’s video, she points out that workplaces, administrations and schools have for a very long time set limits and regulations on the amount of time employees are permitted to use devices and websites to communicate with their friends and family.

Being that an employee is paid to be there, that comes as no great surprise. But introducing penalties ranging from confiscation, fines, blocking access to social networking sites, instant messaging, private email accounts and cell phone usage, it all seems a bit stringent in this age of advanced digital communications.

Socially, what seems to be happening is that today’s employees are challenging the need for companies to block their digital interactions, in direct contradiction to company policy that forbids it in order for them to be “productive and effective”. But does that necessarily mean companies are subverting people’s relationships?

Subversion, Ms Broadbent argues, has been going on over the last 150 years, and that the private sphere has always been banned from the workplace. Society in general, she says, has functioned on the inculcating principle that “attention, isolation and productivity” are all interrelated and that employers have enforced these principles so that communications can only be directed towards the external rather than internal. So is it now the case now that private communication is somehow threatening these entrenched “ethical” values of the school and workplace?

The revolution of the personal perhaps started in earnest from the mid-1990s when people started to use email on their PCs, followed by mobile phones. It has since advanced into strands of a social media milieu that so threatens the educational and corporate hierarchies that they have moved to restrict access to such usage. Not in my back yard but I believe what she says is true.

Her research seems to empirically demonstrate that personal communication at school and in the workplace is more about trust than lost production. Perhaps it has always been that way, but haven’t people always found ways to circumnavigate the status quo?

You can listen to the full video at TED: Stefana Broadbent

John Sylvester is the media director of V9 Design & Build and an expert in search engine optimization and web marketing strategies.