The Controversial Workplace Ban You Need to Consider

Look around you. Do you see your cell phone?

It's probably nearby. In a pocket, on your desk, in your bag, or even in your hand. Perhaps you're reading this blog post on your cell phone.

Now, let me ask you another question. Does your company have a cell phone policy?

Many do. These types of policies are common for customer-facing employees. For example, a study from Contact Center Pipeline found that 87 percent of contact centers have a workplace cell phone policy.

Most policies say that your phone can't interfere with your job duties. I've uncovered data that suggests the only way to do that is to ban cell phones completely.

Why Cell Phones Should Be Banned

A 2015 study from researchers Cary Stothart, Ainsley Mitchum, and Courtney Yehnert at Florida State University provide some compelling evidence for instituting a workplace cell phone ban.

The study, summarized nicely in this Harvard Business Review article, had participants complete a Sustained Attention to Response Task (SART). The subjects were seated at a computer and were asked to click on some items as they appeared on the screen while avoiding others. 

The participants' error rates were measured after one round of the activity to establish a baseline. They were then asked to complete a second round where subjecs were selected to be in one of three groups (unbeknownst to them):

  • Control Group
  • Group Receiving Text Messages
  • Group Receiving Phone Calls

The researchers sent participants in one group several text messages while they were completing the second SART. Another group received several phone calls during the second round. A third group didn't receive any texts or calls from the experimenters so it could act as the control.

The researchers found that just hearing a text or call notification from your cell phone can hurt work quality. Here are the error rate increases for each group from Round 1 to Round 2:

Some increase in error rate is expected. People have the attention span of a gnat these days. But, look at the difference between the control group and the groups distracted by their cell phones!

Amazingly, the study found that the phone notifications had a lingering effect. Participants made errors at the same rate after the notification as they did during the notification. That's because our mind wanders away from the task at hand and thinks about who might be calling or texting.

This data tells us the mere presence of a personal cell phone is a subliminal invitation to multitask. Not only is multitasking bad for customer service, sustained multitasking can ultimately lead to something called Directed Attention Fatigue which has symptoms identical to ADD.

So, it makes sense to ban cell phones in the workplace if you want to prevent service failures.


The Case Against Banning Cell Phones

Your employees are adults.

Banning their personal phones completely smacks of big-brotherism. It feels like an unwelcome intrusion and sends a message that you don't trust your employees to handle themselves.

Some might argue that these types of workplace policies lead to higher rates of employee burnout. While I didn't research that question in my recent burnout study, it's certainly a believable hypothesis.

It also opens the door for hypocrisy. Show me a manager who isn't walking around with his or her cell phone in hand! Letting the boss do one thing while employees do another isn't a great way to build morale.

And finally, there's the amazing story from Rackspace where employees used their personal cell phones to save the day when the phone system went down. You can read all about it by downloading the first chapter of my upcoming book.


Where Do You Come Out?

So, should you ban cell phones at work or not? Here's my preferred approach to the issue:

  1. Share the data with employees to make them aware.
  2. Discuss ways that distractions can hurt service.
  3. Let them decide what to do, but hold them accountable for results.

I always want to treat customer service employees with respect. This includes implementing as few policies as possible. 

Some employees can deliver outstanding service with a cell phone nearby. Others can't. I'd let them decide for themselves. What matters most is the quality of service they provide.