Should We Reintroduce Computer-free Activity into the Workplace?

No Computers sign

Here is a strange idea: reduce the use of computers in the workplace.


Bear with me and read on…

Computers and Stress

Back in the nineties management at my Intel campus realized that non-stop computer use was causing health damage in the form of RSI (repetitive stress injuries – remember all those weird wrist bandages?). To address it, we implemented structured “stretching sessions” where everyone stopped typing and came together to do directed exercises with music and fun.

Today we see that non-stop computer use is causing health damage in other forms – and it may be time to do something about it.

Prof. Gloria Mark of the University of California at Irvine, one of the leading researchers of computer mediated communications and information overload, spoke at the Overloaded 2014 conference about a study she’d run where knowledge workers’ heart rates were actually monitored for physical stress while using and not using computers. The data showed a clear correlation: computer use (notably email) increases stress. So:

Computers = Stress

From which it follows that:

Less Computers = Less Stress

Stress, it is no secret, is not good for your health. So, here is a corollary:

Less Computers = Healthier employees

We do want employees to be healthy, so – should we reduce computer use? And how could we even do that?

How we can reduce computer use in the workplace

Obviously, we can’t eliminate computers from the workplace. These marvels of technology are so ingrained in our work life (and life in general)) that we no longer even marvel at them; we take them for granted, and every facet of our jobs in deeply integrated with them. So what is the point?

My point is this: we can reduce stress and its many ill effects by building some computer-free time into our daily routines; essentially reintroduce some of the “old ways” of pre-1980 work. I don’t mean doing it by haphazardly taking breaks; I mean by intentionally designing-in some work process elements that circumvent computer usage. For example:

  • Forbid email reading and other non-essential computer use at meetings, to encourage involvement and eye contact.
  • Intentionally support reading of paper publications, rather than do all our reading on screen. A workplace could do this by keeping a library (“learning center”, in today’s parlance) that intentionally provides paper copies of the main professional journals and daily papers. Reading a paper hardcopy is a very different experience: not only calmer but also devoid of interruptions.
  • Hold off-site work group events where people interact without computers.
  • Regulate access to email during and after work hours.
  • Anything else that will cause people, in a structured manner, to have parts of their workday that allow them to do useful work without computers.

How you can reduce computer use individually

Until your workplace does any of this, you can also take action personally – certainly if you’re a freelance worker like I am today, but also as a salaried employee. It may take more self-control than you like, but you have enough leeway to implement some ideas like taking reading breaks, applying email-free time slots, and balancing work and life.

Your health may depend on it!