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Personal phones causing a problem at work? Damage control is possible

Smartphones. Certainly, they can be tremendous tools, but they also can be major distractions in the workplace. A recent survey from CareerBuilder placed cellphones at the top of a list of productivity killers at work, more of a problem than office gossip, social media, smoke breaks, and other diversions. 

Phones are now so much more than phones, They enable employees to make calls and texts, check social media and personal email, surf the internet, shoot photos and videos, play games, and more—all on company time. And that gives employers reason for concern.

The CareerBuilder survey, conducted in 2016, found that 83 percent of the U.S. workers in the survey had smartphones and 82 percent reported keeping their phones nearby while working. The survey also found that two-thirds of the workers admitted to checking their phones multiple times throughout the workday.

What are those employees/phone enthusiasts doing? The survey said 65 percent were spending time on personal messaging, 51 percent were checking the weather, 44 percent were catching up on news, 24 percent were shopping, and 3 percent admitted to using their phones during the workday for dating.

Personal phones don’t have to be a problem at work, but what happens when they do become productivity-killing distractions? How can employers hold down the damage?

Understand the problem
“The first advice that I would give any employer is to not overreact,” Brad Federman, chief operating officer for F&H Solutions Group, a human resources consulting firm in Memphis, Tennessee, says.

Sometimes when employers begin noticing an employee or two on their phones, they assume that they have a problem with employees wasting time, Federman says. So he suggests a few steps for employers to take if they’re concerned about their employees’ phone use.

  • Determine if there really is a problem.
  • Make a distinction between employees who have their phones in view and even check them throughout the day versus employees who spend a lot of time on their phones. “If there are people playing games, internet surfing, texting, etc. that is different than ensuring they are not getting a message from a family member, etc.,” Federman says.
  • Have conversations and training on appropriate use of personal cellphones at work. “It’s OK to put that into a policy,” Federman says, “but I would ensure that the policy is written in an employee-friendly manner instead of one that comes across in a punitive manner.”

Federman notes how the rise of personal phones has changed the way employees stay in touch with the people important to them during work time.

“Our phones truly have become an extension of ourselves,” he says. “It used to be that when there was a personal emergency or an issue people would call our work phone, or they would call the main line in order to get our attention and make sure we are aware of personal things, such as a family member being ill, etc. Now people do not give out their work phone number as much as they do their cell phone number for personal reasons. In many ways this is actually better for work,” since the employer’s resources aren’t tied up for employees’ personal business.

Personal phone ban?
Even though personal phones can pay off for both the employee and employer, employers need to respond when phone use becomes a problem. It can be tempting to impose an outright ban on personal phones at work, but Federman says he doesn’t advise that action.

“First (a ban) is very extreme and will cause a drop in morale,” Federman says. “Second, it can create personal complications for people and create risks for employers that they do not want to have.” He would ask employers contemplating a ban to imagine a school having trouble getting in touch with a parent or a family member at a hospital not being able to contact an employee because of a workplace no-phones policy.

“And the last reason I would not create a ban is because we are punishing a majority of people for the abuse by a few,” Federman says.

What to do
So although it’s important for employers to guard against overreacting, they do need to respond to abuse. Federman has a few suggestions:

  • “First, when you have a performance problem, deal with the person who has a performance problem,” Federman says. If employees are abusing their rights by not putting in their time at work and wasting time on their phones, he says to address that individual and put them through a disciplinary process.
  • “Second, manage by results, not by time. If I have an individual who can actually utilize their personal phone for personal reasons and still get more work done than everyone else, why do I care?” Federman says. “The reality is as organizations, we should care most about productivity and the quality of work our employees are producing. Manage towards those two issues and you will be fine.”