telegraph: Many of us wonder where we’d be without our smartphones.
From answering emails, to fact checking on the internet, our mobiles are surely the most productive tools we have in our lives, both inside and outside the office.
But are smartphones really making us more productive at work? Some business owners don’t believe so, with news recently emerging that a marketing director in Yorkshire took to confiscating his employees’ phones until lunchtime.
For one writer, who spoke to The Telegraph on the condition of anonymity, the smartphone temptation during the working day could lead to some “serious consequence”’.
‘I was three times more productive’
“I just couldn’t seem to get work done,” they said. “With the constant urge to check my phone, vibrations would throw me for a loop and it would snap me out of writing.
“I only figured it out because I left my phone on a train and it took a week to get it back. I found I was two, three times more productive for a week.”
Founder of snack company Liobites Anna Oldbury, however, says that the smartphone is essential to productivity.
“I run an small company and my smartphone allows me to be flexible with work around family life,” she says. “I utilise my time while on the train to check my emails and I am able to answer important emails while out without the need of carrying heavy laptop.”
So which is it? Modern marvels that facilitate our work wherever we go, or time-stealing temptresses that send productivity through the floor?
This is important. Productivity, which measures the economic output created in every hour worked, is crucial to growing wages and rising prosperity in the long-run. If productivity stalls, so do living standards.
Am I addicted to my smartphone? | Dr Emma Russell reveals the warning signs
Dr Emma Russell, Kingston University, says that if you pick up your phone after hearing a ringtone or vibration – even if you are in the middle of something – it could be a sign that you are “addicted” to your phone.
“We advise reducing notifications by turning off these alerts. If you go straight to your phone after an alert, it’s what we call an addictive response,” she said.
“Many people use their phone as a psychological crutch, whether it be for social interaction or the dreaded fear of missing out, or FOMO.”
And for the past decade, as smartphone sales have risen, productivity has struggled to grow.
It seems astonishing that the digital revolution unleashed by smartphones could have failed to have an impact.
A case of bad data?
Part of this could be mis-measurement – the gains from new technology may simply be missed by statisticians using techniques designed for a pre-digital age. After all, GDP in its modern form was designed more than 80 years ago.
It works best when adding up the value of transactions, but this is difficult when a lot of services offered on a smartphone are effectively ‘free’ such as the purchase of physical maps being replaced by pre-loaded apps.
“A typical example that highlights this effect is the price of a phone bill, which may have only changed a little over the last decade. Meanwhile the volume of text messages, minutes, and data provided in new bundles has grown exponentially,” says Ian Goldin, professor of globalisation and development at Oxford University, in the report The Productivity Paradox.
“Other examples related to smartphones include digital photos and high accuracy GPS services. In both cases, the number consumed (eg number of photos taken) has increased dramatically, but overall measured output and sales in GDP of standalone cameras, photo, music and GPS equipment have gone down.”
To accurately reflect this, national accounts should register a huge fall in the price of phones and mobile data .
Or look at business investment, which also forms an important component of GDP.
If workers use their own smartphones in the office, that means companies do not have to buy the devices to distribute among their staff.
As a result an important component of capital is now provided by workers, and some investment in the digital economy evaporates.
Only the consumption is spotted, when the worker buys the phone.
This is no bad thing for the economy – one phone doubles up for personal and work use, which is extremely efficient and did not happen in years gone by with desktop computers. Yet it reduces the obvious investment spending which is added to GDP, and so may be missing from the data.
Re-writing the story of the whole economy is a difficult and sensitive operation. On the other hand mismeasurement is not the only culprit for the lack of clear productivity growth, with that looming threat of distraction affecting customers as much as workers.
Competition for attention
Most visits to retailers’ websites come via smartphones, which should make them the idea channel through which to make more sales.
Yet shops find consumers are so distracted they often fail to complete purchases after one or two clicks on the screen.
“It is a huge challenge. Competition for attention is intense,” says Richard Lim at Retail Economics.
“Retailers are competing with so many other retailers but also so many other services and apps. Retailers who do this really well understand they can’t just have their own website, the need to be on other platforms, the need to be on social media.”
He cites examples including clothes shop Boohoo which has 6m Instagram followers and Zara which has more than 33m.
Customers can click on the image to buy goods direct, without even leaving the Instagram app, limiting the time in which shoppers can become distracted.
“Ultimately the shorter you can make it from awareness to purchase, the better for retailers, to avoid customers’ attention being dispersed in other areas,” says Lim.
It’s tempting to base the loss of attention on an individual’s personality and the type of job they have –a plumber constantly checking a phone during a job may have a more obvious impact than an office worker– but the psychological impact is still under research.
Some studies, such as in the Journal of Experimental Psychology in 2015, suggest that notifications are the real bane of productivity.
“We found that cellular phone notifications alone significantly disrupted performance on an attention-demanding task, even when participants did not directly interact with a mobile device,” said the report. “The magnitude of observed distraction effects was comparable in magnitude to those seen when users actively used a mobile phone.”
The theory goes that the incessant temptation of buzzing notifications and social media “Fear Of Missing Out” has reached such a height that workers cannot focus on the task at hand. As social creatures, our innate desire for contact is satisfied by a smartphone. It is why we find them so rewarding… and so hard to resist.
However, the empirical evidence is less solid. Niklas Johannes of the Dutch Behavioural Science Institute at Radboud University said that while there were many studies suggesting the distraction of a smartphone ‘hampers performance’, his own recent study found that, while distracting, smartphones did not impair performance.
“There is more and more evidence coming out that suggests a disconnect between what people perceive and their performance, so we will need more robust research to address this mechanism of distractions.” he said.
An issue of trust
All of which paints a rather conflicting picture of how the proliferation of smartphones in our daily lives has affected the economy and our productivity. When it comes to banning smartphones, or even self-regulation on checking Facebook, bosses may be tempted to err on the side of caution and restrict their use in the workplace. But even that could have complicated consequences.
“Taking a break from technology has a mix of both positive and negative effects on the user,” says Heather Shaw of Lancaster University. “We have dependencies on our smartphones to achieve our everyday tasks. Forcibly taking smartphones away from people could actually be of detriment to them, and not have the effects that employees intended from this removal.”
Mike Clancy, general secretary of specialist union Prospect, believes the issue is about trust.
“The flexibility created by new tech has the potential to make work a much more enjoyable experience, but there is also the potential for workers to be subjected to greater control and coercive behaviour as a result,” he says. “Companies are going to have to get far better at consulting with staff and giving them a collective voice in their workplaces, rather than controlling them and risking looking like staff cannot be trusted with new technology.”
With such conflicting evidence about the impact, it could be the main issue over whether smartphones are making us more or less productive is individuals trusting themselves.
There is no doubt that the computer in your pocket can effortlessly make you more efficient. But if you find its insistent buzz more frivolous than fruitful, perhaps the most productive piece of technology you can find is a nearby drawer.
Source: Published by telegraph