The digital age has its pros and cons for the workforce. Technology provides employees with faster, easier access to information and data. It also allows for greater personalization and more interaction between employee and employer. Yet the digitalization of the workplace does have its downsides. Consider smartphones, for example: They can be alternately distracting and distressing; they can create barriers to action like information overload and decision fatigue, as well as work-life balance issues stemming from an “always-on” mentality.
Some managers, frustrated with the ubiquity of these devices and their ability to distract employees, are banning phones from meetings or otherwise limiting their use in the workplace, the Wall Street Journal’s John Simons wrote in a feature last week. Simons points to studies indicating that executives and managers consider smartphones “the leading productivity killers in the workplace” and that the presence of a phone can harm people’s cognitive performance, even when they are not using or holding it. He also notes Google’s recent announcement that the next version of its Android operating system will introduce a feature enabling users to see how much time they spend on their phones, which apps they use the most, and how often the phone gets unlocked.
Our recent research at CEB, now Gartner, also underscores these downsides of technology at work. While solutions to help employees minimize time wasted on tech, like Google’s forthcoming Android time tracker, might be helpful, our research suggests that no technological intervention can have a meaningful impact on employee performance or the employee experience by itself. The limitations are striking, given the large investments organizations (and HR functions in particular) are making in technology to support employees. But the challenges employers face are human and organizational, not just technological—and the same must be true of any solution.
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.
While Netflix is famous for the hugely influential presentation that serves as the company’s manifesto on organizational culture, nowhere in that document does it say: “Watch Netflix while you work.” But according to a survey the streaming video provider commissioned this summer, many Americans are doing just that: 37 percent of respondents said they had streamed Netflix content at work.
How many of these Americans were wasting time watching movies when they should have been working, catching a bit of their favorite TV show on their lunch break, or working on a low-attention task while streaming something in the background isn’t clear from the survey. While it is easy to block streaming services from running on your organization’s hardware or network, pretty much every employee now carries a distraction delivery device in the form of their personal mobile phone, and it’s reasonable to expect employees not to watch TV at their desks, but less reasonable (or at least more difficult) to stop them from doing so in a restroom or cafeteria.
As long as they are legitimately on a break and using headphones, prohibiting employees’ use of streaming services on their personal devices and through their own data plans may be more trouble than it is worth to enforce. For some top workers, Frank Kalman argues at Talent Economy, it may not even be worth worrying about if they do watch Netflix at their desks:
While the augmented-reality game Pokémon Go doesn’t necessarily merit a special policy any more than other common workplace distractions, its sudden ubiquity has led to much hand-wringing among employers about how much to worry about their employees playing it at work. These concerns are hardly trivial: Boeing banned the app from being installed on company smartphones after an employee was nearly injured while distracted chasing Pokémon at work. Some experts think all employers should do the same, as a data security precaution, Michael J. O’Brien notes at HRE Daily:
According to the International Association of IT Asset Managers (IAITAM), fans of the game “do not include the corporate professionals who deal with Information Technology Asset Management (ITAM) designed to keep phones, tablets, and other devices secure in the workplace.” And that’s why the group has called on corporations to ban the installation and use of Pokémon Go on both corporate-owned, business-only (COBO) phones/tablets and “bring your own device” (BYOD) phones/tablets with direct access to sensitive corporate information and accounts. Here’s IAITAM CEO Dr. Barbara Rembiesa discussing the dangerous world that players enter when tracking down the fanciful creatures on the phones, tablets, etc.:
Now that Microsoft’s LinkedIn acquisition has everyone thinking about the future of social media at work, Pew has come out with a new study looking at the present :
Today’s workers incorporate social media into a wide range of activities while on the job. Some of these activities are explicitly professional or job-related, while others are more personal in nature. The survey asked Americans who are employed full- or part-time about eight different ways they might use social media while on the job and found that:
- 34% ever use social media while at work to take a mental break from their job
- 27% to connect with friends and family while at work
- 24% to make or support professional connections
- 20% to get information that helps them solve problems at work
- 17% to build or strengthen personal relationships with coworkers
- 17% to learn about someone they work with
- 12% to ask work-related questions of people outside their organization
- 12% to ask such questions of people inside their organization
Among the study’s more interesting findings is how few employees use social media platforms for work-related purposes. Just 19 percent said they ever used Facebook for such purposes, and a mere 14 percent said they used LinkedIn. Three percent mentioned Twitter, while 9 percent said they used a special platform provided by their employer. INSEAD professor Quy Huy, who has researched the use of these enterprise platforms and what makes them successful, recently offered some thoughts on why most of them fail:
No, but many employers believe they’re making making them lazy, according to a new survey from CareerBuilder:
While technology helps workers stay connected while away from the office, in many cases it is causing them to disconnect while in the office, leading to a negative impact on productivity. According to new CareerBuilder research, 1 in 5 employers (19 percent) think workers are productive less than five hours a day. When looking for a culprit, more than half of employers (55 percent) say that workers’ mobile phones/texting are to blame. …
More than 8 in 10 workers (83 percent) have smartphones, and 82 percent of those with smartphones keep them within eye contact at work. And while only 10 percent of those with smartphones say it’s decreasing their productivity at work, 2 in 3 (66 percent) say they use it (at least) several times a day while working.