How smartphones increase productivity

New survey points finger at smartphones, but that research fails to recognize the numerous benefits of smartphone use in the workplace.

A new survey from CareerBuilder finds employers nearly 20 percent of full-time workers are productive fewer than five hours a day. The cause of that lost productivity? They say smartphones.

We have been here before. First, employers blamed the web for lost productivity. They responded by blocking access to the web, only to open it later when they realized it actually contained work-related content. Later, social media sites were the culprit. Businesses responded, predictably, by blocking access. Now, a quarter of companies are banning personal calls and cell phone use.

Nearly half of employers insist smartphone distractions have compromised work quality, lowered morale as other employees are forced to pick up the slack, negatively impacted relationships between employees and bosses, and led to missed deadlines.

Only 10 percent of employees with smartphones agreed that their productivity has dropped because of phone use, though 66 percent said they use their phones several times during the workday.

Looking at the amount of time employees spent on non-work-related websites, Websense calculated a multi-billion-dollar loss in productivity. The problem with its calculation is that it had nothing to do with productivity. How many extra hours were those employees working in order to complete their tasks? How much work were they doing away from the office? It says something that, at the same time Websense made its case that productivity was suffering, the U.S. Department of Labor released statistics revealing a rise in U.S. worker productivity.

I suspect the same thing is happening here: Bosses see workers on their phones and assume that must mean they’re not getting their jobs done. To be sure, there have always been employees who waste time. Those using smartphones today probably used crossword puzzles before, but to paint everybody with that brush is wrong.

Just how wrong becomes clear when you look at new data from the Pew Research Center about how employees use social media at work. The data is relevant since other research shows most social media activities these days happen on smartphones. According to the Pew report, 24 percent of workers say they use social media to make or support professional connections, which often pays off for the company. Twenty percent get information that helps solve problems at work, 17 percent build or strengthen personal relationships with coworkers and another 17 percent learn about someone they work with. Twelve percent ask work-related questions of people outside the organization and 12 percent ask work-related questions of people inside the organization.

As for the top result, 34 percent say they use social media to take a mental break from work. While that may seem like a waste of time to a boss who doesn’t know any better, the fact is that mental breaks improve productivity. A University of Melbourne study, for instance, found that workers who took breaks to leisurely surf the web were 9 percent more productive than those who didn’t.

The lost productivity myth actually produces even worse results. Workers at companies with stricter social media policies are less likely to use it to solve work problems. A quarter of workers at companies without such policies use social media to solve problems at work while only 16 percent of those working at companies with restrictive policies take advantage of the resource. Fewer employees at companies with policies take mental breaks from work, which lowers their productivity, according to the research.

It’s also worth noting that smartphones are increasingly the way employees tap into enterprise social networks, company intranets and other work-related resources. A ban just keeps employees from the resources the company wants them to use.

Bans are counterproductive

Ultimately, studies like the Careerbuilder survey lead companies to make knee-jerk decisions that ultimately do more harm than good. Most workers believe social media helps their job performance. The remedy is to measure real productivity: Is the work getting done? Is it getting done on time? Does it meet quality requirements?

Second, bosses need to manage by exception. The vast majority of workers won’t let their smartphone activities get in the way of doing a good job. After all, they want the bonuses, promotions, raises, recognition, and the other benefits of doing good work. Deal with the minority of employees whose performance is suffering and leave everyone else alone. It won’t build employee engagement if workers who manage to use their phones and do a great job are punished for the behaviors of a few others.

Third, figure out how smartphone use benefits the organization and promote those behaviors. Employees who tap into peer networks online solve problems considerably faster than those who don’t. A quarter of employees say they never use the internet for work-related tasks. Now that’s a contributor to lowered productivity.

A version of this article first appeared on LinkedIn.

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