Smartphone bans in the workplace can have some positive effects on productivity, but only for some tasks, according to a study published in the journal Experimental Economics (1). A smartphone ban increased efficiency when employees performed easy and mundane tasks but did not improve the execution of more complex jobs.
For many of us, the smartphone follows everywhere we go. It’s no longer just a phone, but it works as an alarm, a camera and a TV, to name just a few. Many employers, however, see the use of personal smartphones with some suspicion, as it can be a potential distraction during working hours.
The problem is that these phones are private property, and strict bans are difficult to enforce and even harder to control. This is why most measures don’t go beyond a “soft” ban, usually in the form of an appeal to staff not to use their smartphones during work, but this is often disregarded as it has no real consequences.
There is much disagreement as to whether these bans are even effective. “A survey we conducted in collaboration with the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Berlin showed that about 20% of the companies interviewed already work with soft smartphone bans,” reported Dr Adrian Chadi from the University of Konstanz and one of the authors of the current study. Of those 20% that have smartphone bans in place, only about half believed they work, while the other half doubted that these measures could have any positive effect on the workforce.
Keen to understand how employees perceive these bans, an interdisciplinary team of economists and social scientists from the universities of Konstanz, Lüneburg and Vechta in Germany decided to test how these measures work. In the study, over 100 participants had to call a list of phone numbers and conduct interviews with volunteers and convince them to participate in a survey. Half of the participants had a soft ban on smartphones, while the others were free to use them.
In the end, participants with a ban completed about 10% more calls every hour than participants without a ban. In contrast, the limitation of smartphone use did not affect the number of successfully completed interviews, leading the researchers to conclude that bans can only work on specific tasks. “In the case of less demanding routine tasks, such as working through a long list of phone numbers, it’s helpful not to be distracted by a private smartphone. With more complex, creative tasks, such as convincing strangers to participate in a survey, on the other hand, occasional use of a private smartphone between calls seems to be less detrimental,” said Chadi.
Delving into why this type of ban works for some tasks, the team speculated that it changes what’s considered appropriate during working hours. “Social norms play an important role in the context of bans. Soft bans could lead to staff themselves seeing it as less appropriate to use their smartphones during work time – due to perceived social pressure,” explained Chadi. “This means that companies might hope to increase productivity in the workforce with soft bans – and without penalties and monitoring leading to distrust, rejection or a negative impact on productivity as a result of declining motivation.”
Further analysis revealed that participants with the ban used their phone less than the other group, showing that they understood the need for a ban and respected its terms. For the team, this was enough to explain the increase in productivity. “This probably means that it’s precisely the voluntary nature of observing rules which is one of the secrets of success of soft bans,” concluded Chadi.
(1) Adrian Chadi, Mario Mechtel, Vanessa Mertins (2021). “Smartphone bans and workplace performance”, Experimental Economics; DOI: 10.1007/s10683-021-09715-w