Employee Relations

Should HR be more relaxed about mobile phones at work?

happy employee

In a condemning article published by Forbes last year, journalist Chris Morris reported that the average employee wastes around five hours per week ‘goofing off’ on their mobile phone. But is this time really wasted? Or is the time employees spend using their mobile phones at work just a sign that we live in a different era?


In today’s article, I’m exploring whether or not you should be relaxing your company’s mobile phone policy, as well as ways you can improve your policy to increase productivity, without necessarily throttling freedom. And I’ve interviewed a selection of experts to help us get to the bottom of it.


Banning mobile phones is an outdated policy


Steve Wang has worked in Human Resources for over 15 years, and says that allowing the use of mobile phones at work has become a necessity.


“Employees actually need their phones in order to work effectively” he says. “Disallowing employees from using them at work is an outdated company policy that can only bring more harm than good.”


Steve explains that phones are a great tool for jotting down notes, creating reminders for meetings, getting in touch with co-workers, and staying up to date with industry news. They are also useful for performing simple tasks that might otherwise require a dedicated item on the desk, such as a calculator.


The very presence of a mobile phone can cause poor performance


So if mobile phones are so useful in the workplace, then why do some employers still insist on banning them? Well, maybe it’s because there is a fair bit of research suggesting that phones act as nothing but a distraction.


One such study, reported by the Daily Mail goes as far as saying that the phone doesn’t even need to be “ringing or pinging”. When subjects were asked to carry out a digital task, those with a mobile phone placed on the desk near them, performed worse than those with a pad of paper placed on the desk near them.


But while this is interesting, I’m not sure it applies to employees in the workplace. After all, they will be performing a job they know well, and the phone they bring with them will be their own – not one placed there by a researcher.


But taking it away can be even more harmful


So what does happen when you separate a person from their own personal mobile phone? According to The Guardian, the result is something called ‘nomophobia’ – which is simply short for ‘no mobile phobia’. And yes, it sounds like a little bit of a joke – but it’s an actual thing, and it’s been measured by scientists.


According to Dr Kim Ji Joon, when people are separated from their mobile phones, they often experience a range of the following:


  • Anxiety
  • Unpleasantness
  • Raised blood pressure
  • Faster heart rate


Dr Joon explains that this is because more people now feel as if their phones are an extension of themselves. And personally, I think this is very important to note – especially now that Generation Z will be arriving soon to a workplace near you.


Hire the right people, then give them freedom


For Jesse Harrison, founder of Employee Justice Legal Team, it’s less about whether or not you restrict mobile phone usage, and more about whether you hire responsible people. In fact, Jesse says that as long as an employee’s performance isn’t being hindered, then there is not much of an argument.


“There is no reason to ban them” he says. “What do I care what employees do with their mobile phones? Furthermore, if an employee is unable to use their mobile phone in the workplace, they will be more distracted because they are thinking about the ‘forbidden fruit’. Not having access to a mobile phone is more of a distraction than having access to it.”


Jesse goes on to say that the number one quality he requires from all employees, is common sense. And if an employee does not have enough common sense to recognise when their performance is being impacted by their mobile phone, then that’s not the kind of person Jesse would want to hire.


Confidentiality, risk management, and data security


Of course, the argument isn’t entirely about whether or not mobile phones distract employees from their work. You also need to consider whether a mobile phone can introduce a risk to the workplace. For example, cybersecurity CEO Ian McClarty, of PhoenixNAP, advises that you should be careful if you’re dealing with sensitive data.


“If your business deals with sensitive data, mobile phones at work add to the risk” he explains. “The human factor is the weakest link in cybersecurity, whether intentional or not.”


But it’s possible to manage an open BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) policy, even in heavily regulated industries. Sheryl Brown, of Sigma Financial Corporation, says that mobile phones allows their employees to capture fun events and friendship moments in the workplace. She says that their open policy has been a big success so far, and that employees respect their strict protocol – which includes making sure that passwords are switched on at all times, and that inappropriate content is not being viewed or shared.


Work and life overlap too much to outright ban mobile phones at work


In many industries, work and life overlaps far too much for employers to ban the use of mobile phones, according to recruiting veteran Marielle Smith of GoodHire.


She says “people are sometimes expected to respond to emails from home off-hours, so it’s only fair that they are permitted to address personal matters on their mobile phones during work.”


Marielle advises approaching your mobile phone policy like you would other company policies, such as flextime.


“Give employees specific goals and KPIs that they need to achieve, and have less condcern about how they accomplish their work. Excellent high capacity employees should not need to be micromanaged.”


Creating a mobile phone policy that works for everyone


I feel like the benefits of allowing mobile phones in the workplace probably, in most circumstances, outweigh the risks. Especially as we move into an age where mobile communication is an integral part of our lives. But how do we create a mobile phone policy that considers the people who are maybe not so tolerant of the noise and distraction these devices create?


For Cristian Rennella, co-founder of MejorTrato.com.mx, there are two important rules of coexistence for your mobile phone policy:


It may only sound when it’s a call – just in case there’s an emergency All other sounds and vibrations should be turned off


“The reason for these two rules, is because one person’s mobile phone could be a distraction or an interruption for somebody else” Cristian explains. “Our IT team measured this, and when we asked employees to switch off sounds and vibrations on their phones, productivity increased by 12.1%.”