Cellphones in spotlight after employer bans

Can boost productivity, interaction
By Sarah Dobson
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 03/21/2016

Tired of finding employees secretly texting in his greenhouse, Bob Mitchell recently decided to ban personal cellphone use. The move generated headlines but Mitchell, owner of SunTech Greenhouses in Manotick, Ont., said he did what he had to do.

“It became a total ban: Leave your cellphones in the staff room. If you want to skip lunch and catch up with your friends, texting, fine. I don’t care. But when you’re on my clock, I have to have you working... In a competitive world, you have to do everything you can.”

A little bit of texting became more texting, said Mitchell, “and then you get into the Facebook stuff and, before you know it, it’s way out of control... And in a group environment, if you have one or two that are sitting still texting while the others are working, then the workload gets shifted out of balance — that creates negative attitude in the staff.”

Mitchell had first asked his 16 employees to stop using their phones while working, but said “a full-out ban” was needed. 

“As a society, I think we’d better call this an addiction. Addictions, they don’t cut back very well.”

Personal cellphone use is a big challenge for employers, along with social media use that’s not for business purposes, said Laura Williams, principal at  Williams HR Law in Markham, Ont.

“It does create productivity challenges and the one thing that is a reality that we’re living with these days, particularly younger generations that are coming up, is you can’t separate them from their cellphones. I mean, they feel like they’re going to expire — I have three teenagers, believe me.”

With greater accessibility, the devices are more popular than ever — and their usage at work is simpler to conceal compared to a desktop computer, she said.

“It’s a lot easier to steal the minutes,” said Williams. “It’s become very easy to be distracted by cellphones, and to do so undetected by anybody.”

Sixty-one per cent of small business owners said employees spend too much time on personal phone calls, emails and texting during work hours, according to a 2015 survey of 8,800 employers by the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB). Other drags on productivity include gossiping (55 per cent), personal web surfing (41 per cent) and excessive lateness (40 per cent).

“It’s such a double-edge sword,” said Monique Moreau, director of national affairs at CFIB in Ottawa. “These days, many of us are encouraged to bring our own device to the workplace, so employers are asking employees to use their own cellphones… so that can make things really complicated.”

But if employees are customer-facing, working at a restaurant or retail environment, for example, they should not be on their phones when helping customers, she said.

“That is a completely different ballgame and I think it makes more sense to address that, as seen, on the spot, as quickly as you can.”

More than three years ago, Liliana Piazza and her husband started managing her father’s business, the Ottawa Bagelshop and Deli, and Piazza decided to implement a cellphone ban, asking the roughly 40 employees to put their devices in a locker when they were working, she said.

“It was something that just personally really irritated me because I saw it as a very blatant theft of time — I’m not paying my employees to look at their phone.”

However, the ban was short-lived as they found it challenging to uphold and enforce the prohibition, especially if that meant searching people’s pockets.

“It’s something that I watch but it is very hard to have a very cut-and-dry no-cellphone policy,” she said, adding if workers are caught spending too much time on their devices, she reprimands them. 

“I do say, ‘If I see that again and there’s a lot of people working, then I’m just going to send you home because you obviously don’t need to be here if you’re not doing any work.’ And that sort of gets their attention, especially people who have been there a long time — I stress they need to set an example for newer employees.”

Positive gains

Despite the ban at SunTech, the reaction from employees has been largely positive, according to Mitchell.

“There’s more interaction between the employees rather than players on the outside. They’re talking to each other rather than whoever they were talking to... through their index fingers.”

Productivity gains are also evident, he said.

“How many grapes get picked in an hour? When that goes up, it tells me you’re picking and not on your phone.”

There’s also the safety aspect.

“(You) get these people paying attention to these (phones) and they will walk over stuff, trip over stuff, get driven into, whatever, because their attention is someplace else,” said Mitchell. 

From a legal standpoint, it may be imperative certain operations or industries have stringent rules around potentially distracting cellphone use, said Williams.

“In safety-sensitive environments, you don’t want to have employees checking their texts or checking how things are trending while they’re performing work that could create hazards if they don’t have their full attention on the task.”

And an employer may be in an industry where employees are dealing with highly sensitive, innovative work that the organization doesn’t want captured on phones, she said.

“There’s the trade secrets aspect of it and the propriety interest that organizations have, but then there’s also sometimes unauthorized picture-taking that could lead to conduct issues such as harassment complaints, so people taking pictures of their colleagues or using images for joking purposes that may be very offensive and unwelcome. So there are a lot of legitimate reasons, even beyond mere productivity.”

Doing it right

When Mitchell brought in the ban, the message was blunt.

“One sheet of paper and a Sharpie on the entrance to the greenhouse itself from the warehouse: ‘No cellphones,’” he said. 

But communication is important, according to Moreau.

“Putting a sign up without really having any discussion with employees beforehand about what might be a new policy for them might be a bit extreme and we suggest, of course, they chat with the employee. Usually, it’s only one or two, it’s not all bad eggs that are causing an issue, so it could be an opportunity for direct contact with that employee first versus just coming into the office one day and not saying anything and just putting up a sign banning cellphones, instead of explaining what the reasoning is behind that,” she said. “And if you don’t want to address it one-on-one with that person, then say, ‘I’ve noticed more cellphones this week and I’m really encouraging employees to be mindful of when they’re working, that they’re working, and if they have the need to connect with their phones, that they do that on their breaks or their lunch hour.’” 

Anytime an employer changes a policy, practice or protocol, it has to make the employee group understand why it’s necessary, said Williams.

“It’s not just the employer trying to make employees’ lives miserable or trying to create unfulfilling workplaces, it’s because there is a business imperative. It could be that productivity has dropped so significantly or that it’s impacted the viability of the business and you should have the metrics to share with the employee groups so they understand.”

Employers should also take into consideration employee needs, said Williams, such as parents with young children or employees with elderly parents who want to be accessible in emergencies. 

“The whole accommodation aspect of it, that’s something that employers should evaluate on a case-by-case basis. But it also depends on the operation, the kind of infrastructure,” she said.

It’s a very nuanced area and as technology evolves, employers will be dealing with more questions like this, said Moreau.

“A one-size-fits-all approach isn’t going to work so it really is up to employers to address what is causing that distraction in the first place and if it is general getting too many texts because they have a really active social life or if it’s a story of someone who’s got a parent who’s ill.”

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