Top tips is a weekly column where we highlight what’s trending in the tech world today and list ways to explore these trends. This week, we’re exploring wearable tech etiquette at the workplace.

Prioritizing face-to-face human connection is practically nonexistent at this point, making it difficult to nurture collaborative environments. Picture yourself entering a public setting like a restaurant, a busy train, or your workplace. What do you see? People are glued to their phones, sporting smartwatches, wireless earphones, and fitness trackers.

Gadgets have often been considered a nuisance in public facilities such as indoor gatherings and places of worship. We’re all familiar with the “Phones on silent” sign. While these gadgets help make our day-to-day lives easier, they also isolate us from shared human experiences and sometimes make us seem rude, impolite, or alien (imagine someone wearing VR goggles).

As smartphones have been around for awhile, some rules of etiquette have developed around them, such as minimizing their use during meetings, in hospitals and libraries, and not setting loud ringtones. But what about smartwatches, fitness trackers, and wireless earbuds? Should they also be silenced? How do we use these devices at work?

While I’m not an etiquette expert, I certainly don’t want to appear ill-mannered at work. I’ve been exploring the best and most polite ways to use wearable tech, and I’ll share some insights here.

Read the room

Are we the problem or the gadget?

I remember when I was in school, my teacher disliked students checking their watches during class. It gave the impression that the student was waiting for the class to end. And this feeling is universal. Often, people around us feel disrespected and undervalued if we don’t give them our full attention during interactions.

Today, it’s more complicated because your smartwatch does a lot more. You can read and respond to emails, messages, and calls, track your physical activity, and access hundreds of apps. With all these features on your wrist, paying attention is much harder than it used to be.

Imagine yourself in an important meeting with your manager; your smartwatch lights up and you glance down at it. What impression does that create about you? It might seem like you’re not paying attention or you’re easily distracted. Even worse, it could suggest that you don’t respect your manager or what they’re saying. So, what do you do instead?

  • In formal settings, it’s important to behave formally. This means silencing notifications on your smartwatch to avoid distractions.

  • Not wearing wireless earbuds during important discussions shows respect and helps foster human connections, much like taking off sunglasses and hats when greeting someone.

The book Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life discusses the concept of being in a “flow state” which is when people become so immersed in an activity that they forget about everything else. They enjoy it so much that they’re willing to do it simply because they love doing it. When a person is in a flow state, they are fully engaged in the activity without any distractions, and they lose track of time passing by. But achieving this flow state at work with hundreds of notifications vying for your attention is not easy.

Here’s one key tip: Silence less urgent and unimportant notifications on your smartwatch when you’re focusing on important tasks. Instead, consider practicing the Pomodoro technique that breaks projects into tasks intervals separated by short breaks. Using these devices to help you achieve a state of flow, perhaps by using a Pomodoro timer. This can assist you in staying focused and avoiding distractions from every other notification.

Different work occasions require different behaviors, so adapt to your specific work setting.

Excuse yourself

It’s important when using wearable tech to remember to be considerate.

It’s not polite to wear your wireless earbuds while someone is talking to you at work, or to put them on when someone is about to speak to you. This gives a negative impression to your coworkers and might make you seem rude or uncooperative.

What you can do is excuse yourself when you need to use them. For example, if you’re expecting an urgent email or message during a meeting or discussion, avoid quickly glancing at your watch, assuming people won’t notice. Instead, politely excuse yourself to check your notifications if it’s important. If you’re about to take a call, politely inform them that you need to take it and put on your earbuds. It’s important to be considerate and polite at work, focusing on human connection and collaboration while using these devices.

A final word

The use of wearable tech has grown in recent years. In a collaborative workplace, knowing when and how to use these devices is crucial. Adapting device usage to the formal setting and being considerate of others can save yourself from unnecessary embarrassment and trouble.  These devices are designed to improve our lives, so let’s use them mindfully at work to achieve productivity and make an effort to be polite while using them.