While smartphones have revolutionized the way business is done, employees having the Internet in their pockets all day also has the obvious downside of making limitless distractions available to them at work. Whether they’re on social media, streaming movies and television shows, or getting addicted to mobile games like Pokémon Go and HQ Trivia, smartphones offer employees all kinds of ways to waste time. It’s no wonder that so many employers say their employees’ smartphone use decreases productivity in their workplace.
Even when we aren’t actively using our smartphones, new research suggests that merely having them in sight can be distracting. At the Harvard Business Review, business and behavioral science scholars Kristen Duke, Adrian Ward, Ayelet Gneezy, and Maarten Bos present the results of an intriguing study they conducted, which suggested that the mere presence of a smartphone reduced people’s cognitive abilities:
Our intervention was simple: before completing [a series of cognitive] tasks, we asked participants to either place their phones in front of them (face-down on their desks), keep them in their pockets or bags, or leave them in another room. Importantly, all phones had sound alerts and vibration turned off, so the participants couldn’t be interrupted by notifications.
The results were striking: individuals who completed these tasks while their phones were in another room performed the best, followed by those who left their phones in their pockets. In last place were those whose phones were on their desks.
It’s not uncommon to think of cybersecurity as primarily a technological challenge, but it’s really more of a human one, Alex Blau writes at the Harvard Business Review, in that cyberattacks so frequently take advantage of human error. Most of the large-scale cyberattacks that have made headlines in the past year at some point involved someone making a mistake or exercising bad judgment and accidentally giving cybercriminals access to sensitive data. Behavioral science, Blau observes, help explain why people (including your employees) have a hard time adopting good cybersecurity habits:
One major insight from the fields of behavioral economics and psychology is that our behavioral biases are quite predictable. For instance, security professionals have said time and again that keeping software up-to-date, and installing security patches as soon as possible, is one of the best methods of protecting information security systems from attacks. However, even though installing updates is a relative no-brainer, many users and even IT administrators procrastinate on this critical step. Why? Part of the problem is that update prompts and patches often come at the wrong time — when the person responsible for installing the update is preoccupied with some other, presently pressing issue.
Blau’s insight here underscores something we discovered in our recent study of organizational culture at CEB, now Gartner. When culture change efforts fail, it is sometimes because employees are unable to manage the tension between the desired change and their day-to-day workflow. Getting employees to adopt a new habit at work means understanding the tradeoffs they need to make in order to do so, minimizing those tradeoffs as much as possible, and giving employees guidance on how to manage them. When best practices in cybersecurity (or any other area where you’re hoping to change employees’ habits) get in the way of an employee doing their work efficiently, the employees is more likely to sidestep them.
In recent years, behavioral economists have become increasingly enthusiastic about the concept of “nudging”—prodding people toward more beneficial behaviors by making them the default option in some of the many choices individuals make about their health or finances. An example of nudging with which employers will be familiar is auto-enrollment in 401(k) plans, which past research has shown results in much higher participation rates than an opt-in system: When the default option is to participate, employees are more likely to do so because it takes more effort not to. Employers have also experimented with nudging strategies to encourage employees toward healthy choices like getting their yearly flu shot.
The latest research The Association for Psychological Science highlights a new study published last week that “compared the effectiveness of nudge-type strategies with more standard policy interventions” and found that nudges are substantially more effective at encouraging both financial and physical wellness:
In the case of retirement savings, for example, a nudge that prompted new employees to indicate their preferred contribution rate to a workplace retirement-savings plan yielded a $100 increase in employee contributions per $1 spent on implementing the program; the next most cost-effective strategy, offering monetary incentives for employees who attended a benefits fair, yielded only a $14.58 increase in employee contributions per $1 spent on the program.