Making It Work: It’s time to rethink our relationship with our devices

We've become increasingly tethered to digital devices–at work, at school and at home. In the wake of COVID-19, some argue that we need to create some healthier rules for how we coexist with technology.

Credit: Courtesy Lane Merrifield

Getting workers to buy into a remote culture means giving them freedom, says entrepreneur Lane Merrifield

We’ve become increasingly tethered to digital devices–at work, at school and at home. In the wake of COVID-19, some argue that we need to create some healthier rules for how we coexist with technology

One of the great things about being an entrepreneur is that you don’t have to follow somebody else’s game plan for business success. You can go out and build an enterprise that addresses a meaningful market need, yes—but also one that meets your own personal goals.

Lane Merrifield has been able to create just such a business—not once, but twice. The 40-year-old Kelowna native rose to prominence nearly 15 years ago with the creation of Club Penguin, an online gaming company that rejected advertising as a source of revenue in favour of paid subscriptions, a novel concept at the time.

“We knew that the only way to truly keep our kids safe was to build a bit of a walled garden for them,” says Merrifield, who for the past two years has served as one of the dragons on CBC’s Dragons’ Den. “When we say we originally built Club Penguin for our own kids, that’s not just a nice story; it really is something we built with them in mind.”

Merrifield, along with business partners Dave Krysko and Lance Priebe, sold Club Penguin to Walt Disney Co. for US$350 million in 2007. After working for the L.A.-based conglomerate for several years, Merrifield decided it was time to return to his entrepreneurial roots. One of his more successful ventures, FreshGrade—an online learning platform that connects students, teachers and parents—was launched in 2011. It, too, hits that sweet spot of a business that addresses a market need but also his needs as a parent.

Before COVID, Merrifield says, FreshGrade was simply a way to give parents a better idea of what was happening in the classroom. “Now, post-COVID, it’s teachers outside of the quote-unquote classroom, which is at home, who are using it to connect with parents and students. It’s turned from a nice-to-have to a need-to-have service.” The Kelowna-based company, which employs 17, has had to upgrade its server four times since April, and was scheduled to launch a new platform this summer to meet exploding demand from school boards across the province.

Still, for all the recent success of FreshGrade, Merrifield worries about any tool that requires kids to be online for any length of time. “One of our core mandates—even pre-COVID—was that we don’t believe in devices being in front of kids’ faces all day long,” he says. “A lot of our work went into figuring out: How do we make it as fast as possible—to capture the learning, grab a photo, take a quick video, and then put the device away so that you can be present in the classroom? Now that kids are at home, same thing: We certainly don’t want to have them sitting there and staring at a screen all day, every day.”

It’s not just kids at home staring at those screens all day. During the pandemic, many of us have found ourselves camped out in home offices—or, if we’re more space challenged, working off the kitchen table, couch or bed. Whether 16 or 61 years of age, every one of us is struggling with how to find that elusive work-life balance—and institutions, be they schools or employers, are having to rethink traditional working relationships to avoid burnout, depression or worse.

“On” all the time

Last fall, before COVID had a name and number, SFU professor Leyland Pitt, along with two colleagues, Pierre Berthon and Colin Campbell, wrote a paper titled “Addictive De-Vices: A Public Policy Analysis of Sources and Solutions to Digital Addiction” for the Journal of Public Policy and Marketing. In it, they noted that Internet addiction was first proposed as a disorder in 1996, so the issue is nothing new. But the rising popularity of mobile devices, and all the apps that come along with them, has made it a topic of intense research interest. 

The negative effects of what the authors call “digital experience addiction” (which encompasses a variety of platforms and usages, both work- and non-work-related) are many: from the psychological (low self-esteem, poor concentration, anxiety and depression); to the physical (sleep disturbance; sedentary lifestyle outcomes, including diabetes and obesity); to the societal (relationship problems, impaired socialization); as well as critical economic harms (especially hits to productivity).

A variety of policy remedies were proposed, including things like mandatory labelling (similar to cigarettes and alcohol, but warning of the addictive properties of various digital experiences) to “digital hygiene” practices: teaching people, especially at a young age, how to “mindfully use digital experiences in a healthy and balanced way.”

But one of the biggest problems, admits Leyland almost a year after the paper was published, is that in the age of COVID, it’s now virtually impossible to counsel anybody to disconnect—especially when our overarching aim is to remain socially distant.

“Most parents, good parents, were restricting the time kids could spend on digital devices before this, says Pitt, who teaches marketing (now via Zoom) at SFU‘s Segal Graduate School of Business. “Now you’re actually saying you have to go on a digital device to do your schoolwork. And then, of course, you have parents working from home, looking after young kids at home,” he adds. “What’s the easiest way to stop the kid from distracting you while you’re trying to do some work? It’s to say, Hey, here’s your iPad—go and play some games. I think we’re going to end up with a generation of kids saying there is no other way to interact with the world than through some kind of digital device.”

Both the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Canadian Pediatrics Society (CPS) have recently made a case for kids returning to school this fall—in part because of the serious consequences that technological immersion (and the resulting isolation) is having on kids’ mental health and social development.

“Policy and practice should reflect the fact that children and youth have very different needs from those of adults,” wrote the CPS in a letter to Canada’s provincial and territorial ministries of education in late June. “A safe return to school, guided by evidence-based policy that meets the unique physical, social, emotional and developmental needs of children and youth, is essential.”

While it’s harder to change the consumption habits of adults, the fallout from increasing reliance on digital experiences is no less severe the older we get. What used to keep many of us in check—knowing when to step away from the screen and interact with people face-to-face—was the social aspect of our collective work experience. In the office, we had those stolen moments when we disconnected from technology: idle chatter at the watercooler, lunchtime strolls in search of a sushi joint, after-work drinks with colleagues.

Now we’re “on” all the time—checking emails, attending Zoom meetings, responding to pings from Slack. And according to recent research, it’s ruining what remained of any work-life balance. In a June survey by U.K. health-care charity Nuffield Health, 80 percent of Brits said that working from home has negatively affected their mental health. “Not being in the physical presence of colleagues means many people feel unable to take a break and step away from their workstations,” write the report’s authors, “with over a third (36%) of home workers feeling as though they always have to be at their computer to respond quickly.”

Cissy Pau, principal of Vancouver-based Clear HR Consulting, has been working with small- to medium-sized employers on their human resources needs for over 20 years. As Pau sees it, a lot of the negative effects of working from home come from management’s failure to adjust expectations around what defines worker “success.”

“I think we’re going to need to move away from the ‘time-in’ perspective—where, if I see a person sitting at their desk at 8:55 and then they leave at five o’clock, then I know they’ve been to work and I’m happy.” Pau expresses concern that many employers, post-COVID, are trying to recreate this world in a remote-work relationship.

“I had a conversation recently with someone who said, What if we use this time-tracking technology, so we know when they’re there and we know when they’re not?” she recalls. “I said, You need to be very clear on your intention. Is this technology meant to document your organization’s processes so that you know that everybody is following the process? Or is it purely a Big Brother is watching over you and making sure that you are locked in when you say you are? And is that really the feeling you want your employees to be left with?”

Pau believes that COVID will accelerate a movement toward “management by objectives”—whereby employees are measured based on what they accomplish, rather than when and how they do the work. “If you can tell somebody, ‘This is what I need you to do,’ and they can do it in four hours versus eight hours? So be it. As long as they’re doing what you need them to do, you, as their employer, should be happy.” And then—if employers make this “less is more” philosophy socially acceptable and build trust into their corporate culture—perhaps employees will feel less wedded to their devices, and less likely to burn out.

That echoes what Lane Merrifield says he’s been hearing. “I’ve been on a half-dozen calls this month alone with companies that are totally revamping their HR policies right now—shifting from a time-based expectation to an activity-based expectation. In the tech sector, this has been happening for a long time, where you’re measuring productivity rather than the clock.”

Merrifield notes that while technological innovation has added many efficiencies to the business world, those benefits haven’t gone to workers. “Think of how long it used to take to write a letter, handing it to a secretarial pool to type it up, then redraft it,” he says. “Two or three hours went into what now takes two minutes with an email, or 20 seconds with a text. But most of the gains of that productivity went to the company.”

If we hope to get employees to buy into a remote culture—where digital devices keep us more connected than ever before—we have to offer them the freedom to schedule work for when it suits them, and the ability to walk away from technology when work is done.

“I think, more than anything else, the shift that’s going to come as a result of COVID is that efficiencies start to bring life back into our lives again,” Merrifield says. “To go play with our kids. To go watch them grow up in a way that my parents’ generation couldn’t, and my grandparents’ generation couldn’t. Let’s let technology work for everyone, and not just the company.” 

Fair Game

While there are undeniable deleterious effects of being glued to a screen, there’s also evidence that some digital activities—like playing video games—can help people, especially youth, to cope in stressful times.

Gamers (those playing six-plus hours a week) identify the activity as a key way to build friendships in a socially distanced time, according to a recent survey by Vancouver-based market researchers Reach3 Insights.

95% said gaming is “an escape from the current COVID situation”

90% said “video games make things feel more ‘normal’ in this time”

82% agreed that gaming is a “great way to hang out with others”

73% feel like being part of a larger community when they game

Clean Break

According to a 2019 report from Ernst & Young, called Decoding the Digital Home 2019, the concept of “digital detox” has become more popular, with 43% of U.K. households surveyed “actively seeking time away from their smartphone and other Internet-enabled devices.”

Perhaps counter to stereotype, “digital native” millennials are even more likely to be seeking an escape: half of respondents aged 25-34 claimed to be looking for digital detox.