For young adults accustomed to continually checking their cellphones, even a single day without access to them can be anxiety-producing. What are the implications for executives about managing this constantly connected generation?

In contemporary society, many people, particularly those under the age of 30, rely on their smartphones for a variety of important activities, including waking up in the morning, listening to music, following the news, finding bus schedules, and communicating with friends and family. A 2015 survey by the Pew Research Center found that 15% of Americans between ages 18 and 29 were “heavily dependent” on their smartphones for online access. There is no question that smartphones make our lives easier and more connected. But at what cost? Several studies have warned that excessive phone use can affect cognitive abilities, sleep, the quality of social interactions, and the ability to engage at work.

Based on the behavior we observed in our classrooms and the extent to which technology is infiltrating young people’s lives, we discussed what we could do to make our students more conscious of the costs associated with unrestrained use of mobile phones and other internet-connected devices. After reading about various ideas for curbing dependency on phones and devices, we decided to initiate a one-day project in which graduate students in our organizational behavior and leadership courses at the University of Bologna in Italy and the Bordeaux, France, campus of Kedge Business School would be asked to suspend all connectivity and keep a journal about their experience. This article is based on the experiences of 153 graduate students who participated in this project between 2015 and 2017.

Students reacted to the idea with a mix of incredulity and skepticism, although these reactions were often followed by a feeling of excitement. Some students, particularly foreign students, pushed back, citing concerns that family members or partners would worry if they were unreachable. In such cases, we suggested that students inform their families in advance and share the contact information of a friend or professor in case of emergency. A number of students questioned the very notion that they were in any way addicted to their devices. However, we ultimately decided to make participation in the project a requirement for our courses, and we advised students to inform their families that they would be out of touch.

Anticipating the Challenge

For a number of students, the days leading up to the challenge were both busy and stressful.