How are smartphones affecting your staff’s performance at work?

The mere presence of a smartphone on your desk is negatively affecting your work, even if you’re not consciously thinking about it – and the same goes for your colleagues and staff, according to new research from the University of Texas.

Smartphone use is a relatively new office challenge, emerging with the rise of social media and the smartphones which make Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the rest accessible at any time, and in an instant.

But this instant access is changing the way our brains work, training us to constantly demand and expect updates from the external world, and potentially creating a constant distraction from the present moment.

As Assistant Professor Adrian Ward and his colleagues note, smartphones “put the world at our fingertips, and rarely leave our sides. [And] although these devices have immense potential to improve welfare, their persistent presence may come at a cognitive cost.”

So the researchers set out to find out just what the cost of our collective smartphone addiction is.

For their study “Brain Drain: The Mere Presence of One’s Own Smartphone Reduces Available Cognitive Capacity”, Assistant Professor Ward and his colleagues worked with nearly 800 undergraduate students to measure what impact simply having a smartphone on their desk – or in their bag – has on a person’s ability to complete important tasks.

Over two experiments, students were asked sit at a desk and and take a series of memory and attention tests that needed their full concentration.

Before starting the tests, participants were asked to turn their smartphones either to silent or to turn them off completely, and then randomly told to place them either 1) on their desk face down, 2) in their pocket or bag, or 3) in another room.

The researchers found that those participants who kept their phones on their desks or in their bags performed significantly worse on the cognitive tests than those who kept their phones in another room.

The affect of their phone’s presence was to reduce both their working memory and their problem-solving abilities.

But perhaps the most significant finding was that participants didn’t realise they were being distracted by their phones.

When interviewed after the experiments, few reported consciously thinking about their phones, or feeling distracted.

“Your conscious mind isn’t thinking about your smartphone, but that process – the process of requiring yourself to not think about something – uses up some of your limited cognitive resources. It’s a brain drain,” Assistant Professor Ward told ScienceDaily.

“We see a linear trend that suggests that as the smartphone becomes more noticeable, participants’ available cognitive capacity decreases,” irrelevant of whether the participant was conscious of the phone.

Daniel Oppenheimer, a professor of psychology at the University of California told The Atlantic:

We know that cell phones are highly desirable, and that lots of people are addicted to their phones, so in that sense it’s not so surprising that having one visible nearby would be a drain on mental resources. But this study is the first to actually demonstrate the effect, and given the prevalence of phones in modern society, that has important implications.

So what does this mean for your organisation? Well, how many of your staff – and your leaders – sit all day with a smartphone on their desk or in their bag?

The key questions raised for NFPs by this research are:

What impact is this relatively new behaviour having on their work? And what impact would a simple policy encouraging staff to leave their phones in their bags – or in another room – have on your organisations’ work and effectiveness overall?

Does your NFP have a policy on smartphone use at work? Please share your experience with other organisations in the comments below!

Image: Flickr/149902454@N08

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