When I meet entrepreneurs to talk about what concerns them in business, often I get an embarrassed reply. Company leaders want to be talking strategy, teamwork and culture, but they are always drawn to this compelling topic:

"Cell phone use. It appears my people are always using their phones."

Talking with their doctor, their mother, the babysitter, and the odd mechanic. And when folks aren't talking, they are texting. Or using other screens.

I was recently in an office, by the way, where it seemed everybody had a personal screen on their desk. One person was listening to music, another was texting. One even had a YouTube video scrolling next to his computer.

I thought the guy doing Sudoku was kidding at first. But no, he was splitting his attention between his estimating job and his screen.

Diss-Traction.

Let's face it, the world has a lot of distractions. For some, distraction is a messy habit that they have brought into the office. For others, the desire for connection has become what we must call addiction.

Not the kind of thing a growing company needs when staff focus, attention and goodwill are keys to the firm's ability to scale.

At the same time, many of my friends in business are worried that, by bringing their concern to the attention of the staff, they will appear small-minded. Or not strategic, as a manager, and not a leader.

I have no such compunctions.  

Look, we all need to stay connected to our phone. But a team depends on all the attention and talents of all its members.  

So no zoning out allowed.

Expecting.

To combat this, I will sometimes set out my expectations.

Here they are:

  • No earphones. A business needs people paying attention to the environment around them. The words, the customers, the task in front of them.
  • Music may play softly in the background. What is softly? It is defined by what it is not.  "Softly" cannot be overheard by the customer when he calls that person. If the music can be heard on the phone call, it is a distraction to the conversation in general.
  • No screens such as iPads or tablets. 
  • No games, video, or ongoing texting conversations on a phone.

I know what you're thinking:

"Millennial revolt."

Not at all.

Look, we all have a cell phone and we all need to be in touch.  For my money, there is no value in pretending that lack of concentration is OK.  It's not, and many leaders are shirking the topic because they fear unpopularity.

Let's address it for the business issue we know it to be.

So, here's how to square these new rules with a staffer's need to be in touch.

Tomato.

I have had one client use a so-called "Pomodoro" app, or timer for the office at my suggestion. This app establishes timed intervals for concentrated work, then sends a signal for pre-determined breaks.

Pomodoro is the Italian word for tomato, and I have no idea how that got attached to a work technique.  But it is great. The way it works is, you start the timer when you are beginning your concentrated task. You work for 25 minutes, and at the 25 minute mark, a soft buzz goes off, signaling five minutes of a break.  Bathroom, texting, phone, whatever.

Then back to the task at hand.

Training Effect.

Pomodoro is particularly effective for reluctant students. I use it sometimes if I am on deadline and need to concentrate on something that's no fun. But the point is that, after a while, the timer becomes internalized. I can eventually work effectively--sometimes in a pleasant work "zone"--after I have re-established the concentration habit.

To me, it is exactly that: re-establishing the concentration habit-- that so many workplaces need right now.

Eventually, most members of the staff will see the value of improved mental effectiveness, and this helps morale. The need for concentration and the dangers of electronic screens are certainly topics I would encourage everyone to talk about at periodic meetings. Because we definitely need to talk about breaking bad habits and establishing new ones.