Skip to Main Content
by Phil Stott | October 12, 2012


Sherry Turkle wants you to put down that phone, step away from that screen, and do something that is becoming a lost art in the workplace: have a conversation with your colleagues.

Turkle—an MIT professor and author of the book Alone Together—thinks we've come to a point where we need to "reclaim conversation" if we're to solve one of the biggest problems we face in business today: overcoming "technology's pull" to lead more productive, more balanced lives.

On stage at the recent World Business Forum in New York's Radio City Music Hall, Turkle described a world in which people seek the thrill of instant feedback from Facebook "likes", are tethered to their computers by the pressure to keep up with a never-ending torrent of email, and where "the communications culture we have created at work leaves us with no time to think." It also creates a central paradox that forms the core of Turkle's theories: at a time where we're more connected than ever, we're also more isolated. Here are a few of the ways in which Turkle sees that isolation manifesting itself, as well as some of her ideas on how to cope with it.


Email: a job in itself?

Citing evidence from her studies of people who report feeling overwhelmed by the pressures of the workplace, Turkle suggested that email, messaging and other indirect forms of communication have become a coping mechanism for many—a way of bypassing the pressure of dealing with colleagues face to face, and detaching from the messiness and complications that can ensue from spontaneous conversations—either face to face or over the phone.  The problem with some of those mechanisms—particularly email—is that they escalate quickly. As a result, what begins as a means of dealing with pressure can become a job in itself—one that comes with its own set of pressures, like the need to constantly check for new messages, or to respond to incoming mail within a set time limit.

There's no easy solution to a problem like this—especially in a culture where employees may be communicating with colleagues in far-flung locations and time zones. However, one of the first steps that Turkle advocates is to "recognize that we're hiding behind email"—and to break free from the trap. While there are some circumstances where nothing else will suffice, consider picking up the phone or making the walk to address a situation in person. In addition to cutting down the amount of email you'll be sending and receiving, you'll also be making a difference to your colleagues; according to Turkle, those same colleagues who spend all day emailing to stave off potentially awkward conversations actually like it when someone reaches out to them in person.


Taking tech off the table

Another example of the isolation engendered by overuse of technology can be found in conference rooms all around the country—people who check and respond to emails and messages even when they’re in meetings. Citing one manager who admitted that he felt that he was using his time more productively that way, Turkle pointed out that the danger of not being fully present in a meeting is that it changes the dynamic of what actually gets discussed. Indeed, not only do the people not paying attention risk missing key details, Turkle also stated that her studies have found that the mere presence of a cellphone on a table can change what people are willing to talk about. The reason: they're aware that people might be diverting their attention elsewhere.

Turkle's solution here is a lot more obvious—companies and individuals need to "carve out sacred spaces" for thinking and conversation. Spaces where no technology is allowed—even for as little as an hour—so that workers can spend time actively communicating with one another, and actually listening to issues and potential solutions.


The art of simplification

Each of those points is related that to Turkle's larger point that we need to learn to live with technology, a process that she believes is "like going on a diet"—it's about scaling back how much we consume, and working towards achieving a healthier balance in our lives. Accordingly, she believes that doing one thing at a time ("following a thought through to completion") is a more valuable skill than multitasking, and that "the school of the future […] will be teaching unitasking."

Additionally, Turkle suggested that we should start thinking of solitude as a good thing. While that may sound like the same thing as the isolation described above, there is an important difference: solitude is about spending time alone with one's thoughts, rather than sitting alone at a computer but constantly checking for new emails or "likes" on Facebook.

While all of Turkle's suggestions represent a move towards a calmer, more simple lifestyle, her ultimate goal is anything but simplistic: "We have to get back to treating each other as the complex human being that we are."

--Phil Stott,