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Why employers have a key role to play in the fight against smartphone addiction

(Image credit: Image Credit: Roman Carey / Pexels)

Have you ever walked around your office canteen and noticed how many of your employees are on their smartphones at lunch? Ever wondered what it is on their phones that needs such urgent attention? One thing’s for sure, there are certainly a few answering emails or checking their inboxes during their supposed lunch ‘break’. Should we find this acceptable?

It's clear that smartphones at work are affecting our productivity, concentration and ability to switch off. Whilst they do have advantages, for example if we're at an offsite meeting we can keep up to speed with almost everything that’s happening on the go; the average person in the UK spends far too much time checking their phone - every 12 minutes on average to be exact, according to research from Ofcom.

What's the happy medium? What can we do to stop our smartphone having a negative impact on our working and personal lives? 

1. Role model what you want to see in your employees

It seems obvious, but as an employer, what example are we setting employees? Have we normalised having our phone on our desk and checking it frequently? Do we go on our smartphones to check emails during meetings with staff? All this has an impact on how our employees perceive us and interact with their smartphones too.

It’s important that we lead by example, keeping our phones away wherever possible and not sending emails to peers outside of working hours.

You’d be surprised at the difference this can make. The presence of a cell phone makes you less inclined to hear spoken conversations, weakens your ability to connect with other people, especially if something meaningful is being discussed and diminishes attention span and cognitive ability.

What’s more, research has shown that the act of pulling out a cell phone is a ‘contagious’ behaviour that may jolt others nearby to do the same, so start by breaking the habit yourself and hopefully others will follow.

It’s good to see that some companies are already realising this problem and taking active steps to create solutions for it.

Apple’s new app, App Limits is a great example of this. It allows people to set a specific amount of time to be in an app, and a notification displays when that time limit is about to expire. Similarly, Screen Time (on iPhones) creates daily activity reports to track usage across the device and show how often the user picks up their phone. Meanwhile, for Android users, the app ‘Space’ helps you set goals to be more mindful of your screen usage. It does so by getting users to complete a short questionnaire about their smartphone habits and setting screen unlock and time use goals. The app then sends you notifications as screen time increases and rewards you with different achievement badges when you meet your daily goals.

2. Encourage smartphone free breaks in your organisation

Research has proven that we work better and more productively when we have regular breaks. In fact, evidence shows that we work best in 90 minute sprints. During these cycles, we’re better able to engage and focus before entering a  ‘brain fog’ for about 20 minutes where we may have more difficulty concentrating.

We must learn to harness these natural cycles by taking breaks in between productivity sprints, encouraging our employees to do the same. Encouraging simple exercises such as having a quick walk around the office, going to the kitchen and/or getting a coffee with colleague should help. Whatever it is, just remember to do it smartphone free!

3. The flipside: smartphones do have positives!

The flipside of smartphones at work is that they can also make having a global workforce easier than ever before. We can stay connected in times of crises or in troublesome situations such as in the case of illness, ultimately making ‘flexible working on the go’ a possibility in most professions.

However, the issue of boundary setting is still crucial from this perspective. Although 14 million people in the UK use a second mobile phone at work, there’s still many who prefer to use their personal handset to take care of business. This means unless we’re careful we don’t ever fully get to switch off from work because we carry it with us everywhere!

In fact, this has gone to such extreme that many have felt the need to set measures to stop it from happening.

At a company level, Volkswagen in Germany, all the way back in 2012  stopped emails being sent to its employees’ BlackBerrys 30 minutes after their shift ended, starting them again 30 minutes before they returned to work. Meanwhile, Full Contact, a US tech company  has a ‘paid paid vacation’ scheme where employees receive $7,500 to finance a trip, on top of their full salaries. There are just three rules to it: no checking work emails, texts, or calls. No working and actually go on vacation or you don't get the money.

At a country level, in France, a law around ‘the right to disconnect’ was introduced in 2016. It required companies with more than 50 employees to establish hours when staff should not send or answer emails. 

Maybe this is an example the UK should follow?

It’s clear that smartphones have helped us progress in ways that we’d once have thought as unimaginable in the workplace but they also bring about serious internal pressures that shouldn’t be overlooked. Employees often feel compelled to work longer and later hours constantly, making themselves available as a result of owning a smartphone and normalising this behaviour.

It’s our role as managers to help strike the right balance, demonstrating best practice and educating our employees to resist the urge of constantly checking their phones. If we don’t, this can easily develop into compulsive and unhealthy behaviour which will ultimately only make our employees less productive in the long term.

Chieu Cao, Co-founder, Perkbox (opens in new tab)
Image Credit: Roman Carey / Pexels

Chieu Cao - Before co-founding Perkbox, the UK’s fastest-growing employee engagement platform, Chieu established himself as a tech marketing force to be reckoned with, leading initiatives for brands including Microsoft, Amazon and Yahoo. A consultant turned CMO, Chieu's repertoire spans both B2C and B2B, from SEO to social strategy.