HR Management & Compliance

The Mueller Team Worked Without Cell Phones

I was intrigued by one aspect of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the Russian meddling in the 2016 election—and it has nothing to do with President Donald Trump. What caught my attention was a reference in The New York Times about his interesting approach to mobile devices. “Mueller’s team investigating Russia’s role in the 2016 U.S. election have arrived for work each day, [and] they have placed their mobile phones in a locker outside of their office suite before entering.”

Source: Pressmaster / shutterstock

No matter what side of the political divide you are on, one must admire that in a city (D.C.) that leaks like a sieve, Mueller’s investigation was amazingly tight-lipped. I wonder, “Was it the mobile phone policy?”

I often write about the prevalence of mobile phones in our work life and how to take advantage of that ubiquity with strategies for integrating them into a wide array of work-related activities. But I also wonder, have we gone too far?

Mr. Brown Takes a Stand: a Case Study

You don’t need to be the special counsel to bar smartphones from your work zone. John Simons wrote in The Wall Street Journal (May 16, 2018) about a boss who banned cell phones from meetings:

Jason Brown had had enough of it. Two years ago, the chief executive of Brown Parker & DeMarinis Advertising paused for a moment to look across the meeting room as he delivered a presentation. The majority of those gathered were fiddling with their phones. In his anger, he issued a companywide edict: “Don’t show up at a meeting with me with your phone. If someone shows up with their phone, it’ll be their last meeting.”

Brown eventually relented because his employees secretly revolted and used other means to keep in constant contact.

Why Worry?

Why are employers (and I) worried about mobile devices at work? First, they are just so distracting.

In the same article where he covered Brown’s ban on phones in meetings, Simons noted, “Two thousand six hundred seventeen times a day. That is how often the average person taps, pokes, pinches, or swipes their personal phone. It all adds up to about 2 hours and 25 minutes, according to a study by mobile app research firm [d]scout Inc. And a good chunk of that time comes during work hours.”

Reed Alexander wrote for MarketWatch last year, “a survey by staffing firm OfficeTeam in 2017 found that professionals admitted wasting an average of 56 minutes every day—roughly five hours out of a standard work week —‘using their mobile device for non-work activities in the office.’ Younger employees between the ages of 18 and 34 spent even more time distracted by their phones—an average of 70 minutes per day.”

I’d guess the reason Mueller banned phones is that they are terrific tools to communicate huge quantities of information, quickly. You can instantaneously text, e-mail, Snapchat, WhatsApp, etc. And, you can capture images, record sounds, and take videos and then not only send them to people but also post them on places that millions of people can see.

There is also the risk that employees can do things with their smartphones that violate company policies, like sexual harassment. Since they are usually personal devices, it can be hard for folks to draw appropriate boundaries.  Even when the devices are furnished by an employer, they become such an integral part of daily life that people often use them as personal devices, again making it easier for boundaries to blur.

Smartphone = Yesterday’s Tool

While I have concerns, I also wonder if we are worrying too much about a technology that may have its best days behind it. In 2017, CNBC Asian Technology Correspondent Arjun Kharpa predicted that smartphones would be dead in 5 years. His logic? “Innovation will come from new areas, not hardware, and the way we interact with devices will change.”

Kharpa is not alone. Matt Weinberger also wrote in 2017 for Business Insider, “One day, not too soon—but still sooner than you think—the smartphone will all but vanish, the way beepers and fax machines did before it.”

There’s Always a “Next Big Thing!”

We have seen glimpses of the new age. My wife now does an amazing amount with just her Apple Watch®. I can pretty much keep up to speed with just my more ancient (but super cool) Suunto sports watch that’s connected to my phone via Bluetooth®.

The new Apple AirPods® headphones are apparently always listening. Lauren Dragan writes in her review in the Wirecutter blog, “Another change is the ability to activate ‘Hey Siri®’ through the AirPods themselves, so you no longer have to keep your phone in speaking range or tap the earbuds. We were pleased to find that ‘Hey Siri’ defaults to the AirPods (and the device connected to them) and doesn’t also trigger your Apple Watch, MacBook®, iPad®, or a different iPhone® simultaneously.”

So, you are no longer acting like a secret agent and tapping your headphones. You still, unfortunately, look like you are talking to yourself. And, of course, there are the Google Glasses and other smart headgear.

Even though I am worried about smartphones at work, I don’t think bans are practical outside of law enforcement and certain other environments—sorry, Mr. Mueller. We are hooked on our mobile devices. But that doesn’t mean that we can ignore appropriate usage. Employers must set limits. Just keep in mind that mobile phones may soon be obsolete, so you must be prepared to control what’s next!

David Micah Kaufman is the founder of BIGGER PIES!—a boutique professional services consulting firm in San Francisco—and a regular contributor to HR Insight. You can reach him at or at 415-272-8115.