Technology is a good thing, right? That’s usually our premise, and regarding smartphones, who would argue? We now hold the world in the palm of our hands, with the always-on ability to communicate, connect, influence, and of course, watch cat videos and peruse our friends’ Instagram feeds.
But is “always-on” a good thing? Particularly at the workplace? Recently, a puzzled Warren Buffett explained to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders that he’d seen productivity steadily decline in the past decade and he didn’t understand the cause. Moreover, many economists agree with him that somehow, individual productivity has fallen in the past decade despite technological advancements.
Think about it: Do employees get more or less work done with a phone at their side? Are forklift drivers more or less likely to drive in a straight line? Are technicians more or less likely to make mistakes due to distraction? Has patient care in medical facilities suffered at the hands of the ever-present phone in our hand or has it improved?
A recent study conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that smartphone distraction costs companies up to $8 billion per year; and that’s limited to their effect on driving employees. What about the cubicle employee? The factory or warehouse employee? How drastic an effect have smartphones had on their productivity?
These questions have been on the minds of many employers who believe that smartphones in the workplace — even when provided by the employer themselves — can create unproductive and possibly even dangerous conditions. Smartphones, they argue, can open employers up to wasted time and wages, liability claims, damaged inventory, frustrated customers and lead to mistakes on the job.
But what can employers do when everyone has one? Some have chosen to come down hard and have forbidden smartphone use at their workplace. Making the rule is significantly easier than implementing it. How do they enforce these rules?
Some employers offer lockboxes for phone storage or maintain that employees must leave their phones in lockers during the workday. Some go so far as implementing punitive measures if an employee is “caught” with a phone, leading to a “cat and mouse” culture where an employee might waste even more time plotting a few stolen moments of phone use than actually being on the phone. None of this bodes well for company culture and for fostering a sense of trust in your people.
As in many similar situations, the solution needs to be positive. Employees need to understand the dangers and effects smartphones have on their work environment. Instead of spending their energy enforcing archaic smartphone policies, employers should spend their time explaining to their employees why smartphones are harmful.
Their harm isn’t limited to productivity, they also have significant effects on employee relationships as well. The company cafeteria — once a place for casual conversation and employee bonding — has become the newest place to interact with the outside world instead of building relationships with the people around you.
This new idea - borrowing from positive psychological ideas of motivation - looks at the problem in a different light. It uses positive rewards to incentivize employees to stay off their phones. How much is it worth to create an environment where people are motivated - not forced - to put their phones down, even when up against all the social and other anxieties created by disconnecting? Is it as valuable as any of the many other employee engagement incentives already proffered by employers? It certainly should be.
“People need help with this. They need to want to put their phones down, and they currently don’t have that desire,” says Eliot Peyser, CEO of Weatherproof Co. “We need to treat people like adults and realize that this problem is not going away.”
OFFr, for one, allows an employer to offer points for blocks of time “off” the phone. Its developers were careful to ensure that there is no tracking involved and that simply any use of the phone is like any other and will shut down during that time. It tracks only successful blocks of time that the phone isn’t used.
This is only one of many creative ways employers can keep employees focused and preserve a healthy work environment. When considering alternative solutions, it is critical that employees do not feel imprisoned but empowered and are motivated to disconnect from their phones on their terms, not their employer's.