Reports Show Business Productivity Drops Tied to Smartphones

The CEO “lost it.”

At first glance the story, as reported in the Wall Street Journal, might seem like a way to get a good chuckle. But in reality, it highlights a major business productivity and management issue for leaders in the digital era: Smartphones are destroying business meetings.

As the WSJ reports: “Jason Brown had had enough of it. Two years ago, the chief executive of Brown, Parker & DeMarinis Advertising paused for a moment to look across the meeting room as he delivered a presentation. The majority of those gathered were fiddling with their phones.”

“I lost it,” says Mr. Brown.

“In his anger, he issued a companywide edict: ‘Don’t show up at a meeting with me with your phone. If someone shows up with their phone, it’ll be their last meeting.’”

How big is the problem? The piece notes that “the devices are also the leading productivity killers in the workplace, according to a 2016 survey of more than 2,000 executives and human-resource managers conducted by CareerBuilder, an HR software and services company.”

As Apple CEO Tim Cook told NPR: “There’s clearly users out there that are worried about the amount of time they’re spending, or the amount of distraction or interruptions that they get.”

In fact, just the presence of smartphones can hurt business. The WSJ adds: “When workers in a recent study by the University of Texas and University of California had their personal phones placed on their desks—untouched—their cognitive performance was lower than when their devices were in another location, such as in a handbag or the pocket of a coat hanging near their workspace.”

Indeed, a recent Harvard Business Review piece noted “Having Your Smartphone Nearby Takes a Toll on Your Thinking.” The authors “investigated whether merely having one’s own smartphone nearby could influence cognitive abilities.”

They note: “The results were striking: individuals who completed these tasks while their phones were in another room performed the best, followed by those who left their phones in their pockets. In last place were those whose phones were on their desks. We saw similar results when participants’ phones were turned off: people performed worst when their phones were nearby, and best when they were away in a separate room. Thus, merely having their smartphones out on the desk led to a small but statistically significant impairment of individuals’ cognitive capacity — on par with effects of lacking sleep.”

What can business leaders do? Another Harvard Business Review suggested specific recommendations to reduce smartphone use.


One idea is to reverse the concept of “taking a break,” and instead of taking a break from work, encourage employees to take a break from their phones. Studies have shown that taking breaks after 90 minutes of work increases focus 30%.

As the first HBR piece notes: “CEOs…may wish to maximize their productivity by defining windows of time during which they plan to be separated from their phones, allowing them to accomplish tasks requiring deeper thought. Moreover, asking employees not to use their phones during meetings may not be enough. Our work suggests that having meetings without phones present can be more effective, boosting focus, function, and the ability to come up with creative solutions. More broadly, we can all become more engaged and cognitively adept in our everyday lives simply by putting our smartphones (far) away.”

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