Science fiction writers and futurists once theorized that technology would dramatically increase human productivity. While robots have worked wonders on the assembly line, humans still rule offices and boardrooms.
Of course, we do get a heavy assist from our smartphones. They field our calls, emails and texts. They get us where we need to go. And store our to-do lists and important documents. One could even call them our external brains.
So much so that it’s hard to remember what life was like before smartphones. Were we more focused? More productive?
Are Smartphones Making Us Dumber?
Cell phones have wormed their way into movie theaters, dinner tables, daily commutes and even offices. And the results are sometimes less than glowing.
According to our 2018 Workplace Productivity and Satisfaction Survey, workers at every stage — from CEO to entry level — listed “frequent interruptions” as the No. 1 source of time wasted at work.
When asked to elaborate, they listed things like “personal phone calls,” “sidetracked by apps” and “internet browsing.”
Our study also showed that workers at all levels spend two hours a day off task. That’s eight hours a week! Or one entire work day. And at least half of that time is spent scrolling through cell phones.
Popular phone-based diversions include checking personal emails, texting, social networking, internet browsing, online shopping and playing mobile games. Nearly 60 percent of employees use their personal phones to get around internet roadblocks installed on corporate networks, up from 22 percent in 2012.
The Burden of Diversions
After an interruption, it takes an average of 23 minutes to get back on task. With that kind of math, a handful of distractions can curtail a whole day of work.
Technology is supposed to save us time and create a productivity revolution, but large investments in IT—when they are not part of a winning strategic vision—have had very little impact on the productivity of established companies.
Nobel Laureate and economist Robert Solow once observed that, “you can find the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics.”
Despite their built-in distractions, cell phones do have an upside. They increase workplace flexibility — making clients and workers accessible 24/7, from anywhere in the world.
And according to a recent CareerBuilder poll, 66 percent of employees believe they are smart about their cell phone use. Only 10 percent feel like it negatively affects their productivity.
Being Smart About Smartphones
Cell phones are here to stay. Instead of cracking down on distractions, employers should focus on why employees are seeking distractions.
If an employee is performing well and meeting deadlines, distractions could be a necessary way of taking mental breaks and blowing off steam.
Cross-functional teamwork where roles, responsibilities, tasks, projects and processes are clearly defined can also boost morale, eliminate bottlenecks and prevent distractions and procrastination. If everyone knows what needs to be accomplished, when, by whom and how distractions will naturally dissipate.
The assembly line thinking of the past will not get us where we need to go. Companies that employ knowledge workers should focus on results — not whether an employee works a full eight hours or takes a few Facebook breaks.
Our smartphones have proven that they can entertain us and even get us where we need to go, but in terms of seeing a productivity payoff, if we don’t think about technology more strategically, we’ll be waiting on that one for a while.