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​Should workplaces ban mobile phones?

What should employers do about personal mobiles when employees are working?
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​Should workplaces ban mobile phones?

​Should workplaces ban mobile phones?

11 December 2019

Dilemma of the month – or the year – for many workplaces is the question of what to do about personal mobiles and other handheld devices when people are working. The arguments for and against banning personal devices at work are generating countless millions of words around the world, on websites, social media and in court cases.

Sacked for using your phone at work

In some situations, where workers are operating vehicles or heavy machinery, employers have recognised the obvious risk of distraction and adopted polices banning the use of mobiles while working. Workers have then been dismissed for flouting those policies.

Cases in point include a Melbourne tram driver who had been photographed using her mobile phone when operating a tram (while stationary at a tram stop) and was dismissed as a result. And in January, a warehouse worker was sacked after she took a 15-second call on her mobile while operating a forklift.

Employers’ other main concern is the risk of lowered productivity, as workers focus on their phones, not on their work. This is easy to understand for anyone who’s ever been at a meeting where people are constantly disengaging from the discussion to check their phone.

Continuous connectedness

The expectation that we should be available at all times can have both positive and negative effects. Easy communication is clearly a major plus with remote, isolated or mobile workers. And for other types of businesses too, there may be benefits in being able to reach people after hours, during breaks and on the weekend – it certainly melds in well with globalisation, interactions with people in other time zones, and the 24/7 operations that are increasingly common. On the other hand, the blurring of the traditional separation between work and private time can be harmful to an optimal work/life balance and could exacerbate individuals’ stress.

The detrimental effect of phones on etiquette – the tendency for people to give phone-mediated interactions higher priority than interactions with people who are physically present – would seem to indicate that many are no longer aware or no longer care that it’s bad manners to interrupt a face-to-face conversation for a phone-based activity. This is not a health and safety issue, of course, but it can certainly be a customer service issue, exasperating or alienating clients. Waiting for someone to finish their call before they serve you is unfortunately all too common – and irritating.

And the physical and psychological aspects of our growing dependence on our phones are attracting more and more attention. Some commentators describe this attachment as an addiction, and the smartphone has been referred to as ‘the world’s smallest slot machine’. Potential harms range from ‘text neck’ and ‘text thumb’ to anxiety and emotional discomfort if a person is separated from their phone or in an area with no reception.

Deciding whether to ban or restrict use of private phones

Ultimately, how to deal with personal mobiles and other such devices (eg for listening to music) depends on the type of work, the type of workplace, and whether the use of devices is causing problems.

There is no doubt that the distractions presented by smartphones and other devices could result in accidents and injuries. For example, if you’re on a plane coming into land, you definitely want the flight controller to be doing his job, not checking Facebook.

In safety-critical positions therefore, the use of personal phones and other handheld devices at the wrong moment could have catastrophic consequences. In such situations, policies banning their use during work shifts would be the norm, and breach of the policy would amount to serious misconduct and a valid reason for dismissal.

In work situations with less obvious or less serious risks, the decision on whether to permit or prohibit use of personal devices during work shifts should be based on a case-by-case consideration – in consultation with the workers involved – of the likelihood and potential severity of the risks. It could be a mistake to be too gung-ho with bans, as workers with young children, ageing parents or other important responsibilities outside work can depend on their phones and complete bans during work time can lower morale.

Under some circumstances, restrictions rather than outright bans may be appropriate. For example, a policy might specify that while on the job, phones may be used for work-related purposes, but not for private communications except in an emergency or during designated work breaks.

Policies may also spell out actions that would constitute improper use of phones or other personal devices, for example, using them while operating mobile equipment or dangerous machinery, or for the purpose of harassment, or in ways that disclose business secrets, violate confidentiality or adversely affect the company’s reputation.

Polices need to be clear on the consequences of improper use, they need to be applied consistently and monitored, and managers need to lead by example.

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