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Scheduled smartphone breaks during the day?

August 14, 2014

By Joe DeSantis, courtesy of SBAM Approved Partner ASE

No one would argue that smartphone technology has profoundly changed our lives, including our lives in the workplace. HR departments struggle to develop policies that balance the benefits of using smartphone technology for private purposes with the right level of employer control. To achieve that balance, more and more employers are coming to appreciate the wisdom of the adage, “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” Or at least, “If you can’t beat ‘em, accommodate ‘em.”

So how about mandating smartphone micro-breaks and building them into the regular schedule?

HR professionals appreciate how futile it is in the end to try to suppress personal smartphone usage during the workday. (Although there are still employers out there who refuse to give up trying to do just that. One unfortunate Chicago-area manufacturing company has taken to disciplining employees who spend more than six minutes total per day on unscheduled bathroom breaks. The root cause of the problem? They’re not hitting the rest room to answer nature’s call; they’re going in there to answer phone calls. And texts, tweets, etc.)

A study out of Kansas State University has concluded that it may be a good thing to encourage regular but short smartphone breaks during the workday.

Researcher Sooyeol Kim, a doctoral student in psychological sciences at KSU, studies the impact of various types of “micro-breaks” on employee productivity. By his definition, micro-breaks are non-work related activities pursued during work hours. Everyone takes micro-breaks—e.g., trips to the water cooler, visits with coworkers, getting a snack, etc.

Kim studied 72 workers from various industries to measure how their smartphone use for personal purposes during the workday affected their self-reported happiness levels by the end of the day.

Kim devised a smartphone app that automatically and securely tracked the amount of time the worker spent on his or her smartphone during the day. The app segregated not just personal use from work-related use, but also activities that he classified as entertainment (e.g., games such as “Angry Birds” and “Candy Crush’) from social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc.)

Study participants downloaded the app and then at the end of the workday recorded answers to questions about their well-being.  

First of all, Kim found that workers spent, on average, 22 minutes out of each eight-hour shift on smartphone usage for personal purposes. That fact alone may surprise managers driven to distraction by what they see as excessive smartphone use by their employees. More significantly, he found that workers who took smartphone micro-breaks during the day reported being happier at the end of the workday. 

Kim argues that smartphone micro-breaks can be good for the employer as well as the worker. “For example,” he said, “if I would play a game for an hour during my working hours, it would definitely hurt my work performance. But if I take short breaks of one or two minutes throughout the day, it could provide me with refreshment to do my job.” 

He further argues that smartphone micro-breaks, because they typically involve interacting with friends and family, are great stress relievers. As such, they can only help employees become more productive. “These days, people struggle with a lot of different types of stressors, such as work demands, time scheduling, family issues or personal life issues.” Micro-breaks “can help people recover and cope with stressors. Smartphones might help and that is really important not only for individuals, but for an organization, too.”

Getting precise measures of productivity in a service-based economy is an elusive and perhaps unattainable goal. But most managers accept that there is a positive relationship, albeit an imprecise one, between a worker’s sense of well-being and his or her level of productivity. If that is so, then it makes general good sense for employers to encourage activities that support their employees’ well-being. The personal use of one’s smartphone during the workday, within reasonable limits, may be one of those activities.

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