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BusinessColumnistsJamie Herzlich

Bosses: Personal cellphone use is a productivity killer

Companies should set clear limits on personal cellphone

Companies should set clear limits on personal cellphone use at work. Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

With so many distractions in the workplace, it’s no wonder a recent survey found that 1 in 5 employers think workers are productive less than five hours a day.

When asked to cite the biggest productivity killer, more than half of employers say workers’ mobile phones and texting are to blame, according to a recent CareerBuilder survey.

While it’s not always possible or reasonable to ban cellphones at work, employers need policies and protocols in place to avoid abusive behavior.

“We live in a mobile, digital world, and personal-device use in the workplace can’t be completely avoided — not without consequences for workplace morale and employer-employee trust,” explains Rosemary Haefner, CareerBuilder’s chief human resources officer. “However, with clear guidelines and reasonable expectations in mind, managers can ensure that productivity isn’t being harmed by occasional personal-device use.”

  • Creating a policy is important, Haefner notes. When you verbally issue rules or don’t have all of them in one document, you give employees the opportunity to interpret the rules or claim they never received them, she says.

“A detailed policy written in clear, straightforward language that outlines all rules and potential disciplinary actions is less open to interpretation and protects your business,” Haefner says.

Even if a company doesn’t provide smartphones to employees, you still need a mobile-device policy, suggests Nancy Flynn, executive director of the Ohio-based consulting firm ePolicy Institute and author of the “The ePolicy Toolkit” (Wiley; $150). That policy should address employees’ use of both business-owned and personal smartphones, tablets, laptops and any kind of portable electronic device, she says.

  • The policy shouldn’t be generalized, but rather spell out specifically how much time employees are permitted to engage in personal communication via their mobile devices, Flynn says. For example, they can engage in personal communication a maximum of X minutes daily, and on their lunch hour and legitimate breaks, she says.

“You should craft a cellphone policy specific to your culture,” advises Christopher Gegwich, a partner at Nixon Peabody LLP in Jericho. In general, he says, there are three categories: a straight prohibition of cellphones during work hours; a policy where personal cellphone use is discouraged; and a policy where cellphone use is at the employee’s discretion.

  • But there needs to be some balance. Unless you are an industry where using cellphones on the job would be dangerous or harmful, “I don’t think you need to be so draconian where you say you can’t bring a cellphone into the workplace at all,” Gegwich says.

There could be special circumstances (family illness or child care emergencies) that warrant cellphone use, he notes. Still, he’s not aware of any law that says an employer can’t ban the use of cellphones in the workplace.

Dede Gotthelf, owner of the Southampton Inn and its Café Klyde, doesn’t ban or confiscate them but says staff understand there are boundaries. “It’s very much part of the company culture to not use personal cellphones during the workday,” she notes. When new employees come on board, it’s one of the standard operating procedures discussed along with dress code, punctuality, etc.

You need to reinforce the policy and have a group of dedicated committed staff who self-police and advise colleagues accordingly, Gotthelf says.

Besides curbing overuse, you should set etiquette guidelines to avoid distracting other employees, Haefner says.

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