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Are smartphones sapping our productivity?

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Smartphones are an essential aspect of modern life – we can check the news, weather, traffic, our bank balance, emails, texts and social networks, all in an instant. But is this “always on” culture taking its toll on our attention span at work?

We recently surveyed smartphone users’ bad mobile habits to understand how many people in the UK are guilty of mistreating the technology, and how far these habits have infiltrated the working day. We found that:

Smartphone users check their phone during work nine times a day. Half make or take at least one personal call a week while they should be working. Almost two thirds send at least one text while they should be working. Just under half browse social media at work (when it’s not for work purposes) – 1 in 10 admit to doing it 3-4 times a week! Half admit to browsing the internet on their phones while they should be working. So, given the extent of the attention we lavish on our phones, what effect are these habits having on productivity?

The distraction factor
Back when telephone access was divided between office workers, the interruption of taking a call while working demanded that old-fashioned guidance on phone etiquette be drawn up to tackle the disruption.

Now, whether it’s as banal as a push notification email or a lively group WhatsApp message that’s lighting up your phone, smartphones provide any number of distractions. But while the increased functionality of mobile technology provides more opportunity for distraction – Skype calling, group gaming, even idle web browsing – the core issue of disruption remains the same.

A widely quoted study by the University of California Irvine found that, when distracted from a task, it can take up to 23 minutes and 15 seconds to return to full concentration again. And if, on average, a smartphone user gets distracted by their phone nine times a day, that potentially adds up to almost three and half hours of time reintegrating into an interrupted task.

However, it’s important to put this distraction into the context of an entire workday’s disruptions. On average, an office worker is either interrupted in their work or switches tasks once every three minutes. All these disruptions could be the effect of checking smartphones but are more likely to consist of a selection of factors such as constant email notifications, chatty co-workers and frequent meetings and calls. These make up a wider culture of accepted distractions in the modern workplace – which need addressing to improve productivity – that the smartphone now appears to be a part of.

But before we unleash a campaign to remove all smartphones from the workplace, it’s important to address the fact that the scourge of phone distractions isn’t a new phenomenon.

An old-fashioned issue with phones
In a newspaper article written in 1905 titled The Abuse of the Telephone, a columnist earnestly posed the question “Does the telephone facilitate the transaction of business, or merely add to its worry and confusion?”

As you’d expect with any large-scale adoption of technology, the traditional telephone had come under a barrage of attacks since it was introduced into offices around the country, and the cynicism didn’t go unnoticed. According to the columnist, “one might as well ask have railways added to the conveniences of life, though even the railways have had sceptics to doubt the reality of the blessings that they brought in the train. So, now there are doubters who question the merits of the telephone.”

In the same way, mobile technology has undeniably brought about many positives into the workplace. They’ve rendered crucial staff always contactable and able to work remotely. Employers benefit from a portable workforce with files and emails accessible on-the-go from smartphones, and the technology has also facilitated more opportunity for online co-worker collaboration.

However, it seems there is a price we pay for a more accessible workforce and instant global connectivity and that is the opportunity for potentially constant interruption. But there are measures we can put in place to reduce the impact on productivity.

Tackling the digital distraction
To tackle the perceived problem of mid-twentieth century telephone disturbance, guidance on phone etiquette advised office workers to arrange the telephone system so that they – or more accurately, their superiors – were “on no account to be disturbed except on the most urgent matters.” A breach of the rule would not only cause unwanted disruption to their workday but it was also considered unacceptable phone etiquette at the time.

To monitor the disturbance caused by mobile phones, the same principle can be applied today by compartmentalising the potential for distraction without removing the benefits. Rather than unshackle yourself completely from your smartphone, if it doesn’t interfere with your work you can: schedule ‘do not disturb’ periods within the Settings of your phone that limit the notifications you receive until a time when you’re available to take them; put your phone on silent – and turn it over – to avoid being disturbed by light and sound notifications[ move your phone away from your desk completely or stow it in a bag, if even the mere possibility of a notification makes you twitchy.

It’s not a fool proof solution to our productivity problems, but if observing a brief psychological separation from our smartphones during office hours helps to reduce the mountain of daily distractions that workers face, it might be worth saving up those instant messages until lunchtime.