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Should personal mobile devices be banned in the workplace?

Cell phones can be a major drag on productivity but could they become a fundamental human right?

By Brian Kreissl 

I remember when mobile phones were still a relatively new phenomenon and it was actually fairly rare to hear people use their phones in the workplace. On the odd occasion when someone would take a call on their personal cell phone in the office, it somehow seemed a little strange and off-putting. 

‎However, I've never been able to understand why talking on a mobile phone is any different from having a conversation on a landline. In both situations, it’s really only possible to overhear one side of the conversation. 

Yet somehow having a one-sided mobile phone conversation seems to bother many people. For example, GO Transit here in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) even made the upstairs of their train coaches “quiet zones” during the rush hour commute, with face-to-face and phone conversations being kept to a minimum. 

That may have something to do with the prevalence of text-based communications such as text messaging and social media. Many people hardly even use their phones as phones these days, and it could be that actually having mobile phone conversations in public these days is considered disruptive to others. 

I personally find this subtle cultural shift interesting. Perhaps it even signals a move away from voice communications (at least electronically)? Certainly, face-to-face communications are becoming less prevalent in society. 

A drag on productivity 

But aside from the question of text versus voice, mobile phones can be a distraction in the workplace regardless of the particular communication channel being used. Not only can they be rude and distracting, but they can also end up being a major waste of time and drag on productivity. 

I have even seen situations where employees were more interested in playing with their phones than serving customers. 

For those reasons, one Ottawa area greenhouse business recently banned employees from using their personal cell phones in the workplace. Manotick, Ont.-based SunTech Greenhouses no longer allows workers to use their personal mobile devices at work. But SunTech is hardly the only employer to do so. 

In fact, a survey conducted by the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) found excessive use of a personal phone to be the biggest challenge to productivity in the workplace, with 61 per cent of respondents citing it as a concern. I also remember a few years back with the controversy surrounding the temporary foreign workers program when some employers argued young Canadian workers were too busy on their phones to be productive. 

But I don’t want to pick on young people. I know several people who really aren’t that young who are obsessed with their mobile devices. 

I’ve seen people who can’t put their phones down during important social engagements, movies, concerts and sporting events. Some of those people would literally have a panic attack if they had to leave their devices at home for 10 minutes. It’s hard to even talk to some people who are more interested in texting and obsessing over Facebook status updates than having an actual social interaction with real, live human beings. 

In the workplace, we see lots of people checking their phones during meetings. Frankly, I’m occasionally guilty of this myself. Sometimes I believe it can be an effective way to multitask — especially where the meeting isn’t all that relevant. But this is actually rather rude and annoying, and may result in people not really being mindful and missing important information. 

As a society, we’re also becoming guilty of hiding behind our phones. We play with our phones and stare at our screens to avoid talking to others in awkward social situations. 

Clearly, we’re becoming far too obsessed with our gadgets and our mobile devices are taking over our lives. I have even heard about some jurisdictions introducing legislation to ban walking and texting. 

Therefore, in many ways, it’s hard to blame employers that ban personal cell phone use in the workplace. In some situations, it may even be necessary for safety or hygiene reasons. 

But it’s kind of pathetic that some employers feel they have to resort to such measures. It would be much better if people could exercise some degree of restraint and common sense when it comes to their phones. 

However, the way things are going, it may get to the point where having constant access to one’s smart phone is almost considered a fundamental human right.

© Copyright Canadian HR Reporter, Thomson Reuters Canada Limited. All rights reserved.

Brian Kreissl

Brian Kreissl is the product development manager for Thomson Reuters Legal Canada's human resources, OH&S, payroll and records retention products and solutions.
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