Smartphone bans found to boost employee performance

June 6, 2021
Surprise! Putting your phone down at work boosts performance and productivity. (Pexels/Engin Akyurt)

Surprise! Putting your phone down at work boosts performance and productivity. (Pexels/Engin Akyurt)

In a first-of-its-kind economic investigation, new research suggests that banning smartphones in the workplace could result in fewer breaks and improved employee performance, especially if employees don't view the ban as a signal of distrust.

Using interviewers conducting a telephone survey at a German research institute as a field experiment, researchers investigated the potentially detrimental impact of personal smartphone usage on workplace productivity for a study published May 3 in Experimental Economics. Individuals were recruited to work alone or in single offices as interviewers for half-day periods, wherein bans on personal smartphone use were randomly instituted during work hours. The study found that banning smartphones, although not enforceable, was associated with a 10% increase in interviewer effort, on average. 

Results from the field experiment were complemented by two employee surveys about cell phone usage and opinions about the policy, as well as a survey among managers, to estimate the ban's potential consequences in the long term. Employees reported that, overall, they did not view the ban as evidence of employer distrust, despite a restriction on personal autonomy, suggesting that tension, interpersonal backlash or other negative side effects need not arise if employer demands are reasonable. 

When the employer provided explicit assurances that a smartphone ban did not signal a lack of trust in employees and explained the rationale for the ban, the number of call attempts per minute increased by more than 13%. Even without a trust signal, however, employee performance in the group under a smartphone ban increased by more than 8% compared with the group without a ban.

Results taken from surveys and the field experiment provide compelling evidence that banning smartphones could increase employee effort in the short term and offer a cost-effective way to improve performance in some fields. Employees' self-reported level of smartphone use, after comparison with corresponding telephone bills, was significantly lower in the treatment groups, which worked under a ban. 

Although these results shed light on the impact of personal distractions on professional performance, the study did not establish direct evidence of how the performance effect develops over longer periods, according to Mario Mechtel, co-author of the paper and a professor of empirical microeconomics at Leuphana University Lüneburg. To conclude that a smartphone ban will necessarily improve performance by 10% at all times in every sector and workplace environment would be a mistake. 

Mechtel explained that the study's field experiment observed newly hired employees during one half-day shift in order to avoid potential spillover effects. Spreading the word about the randomized smartphone ban would be easier in a workplace where co-workers have long-standing relationships, so researchers hoped that focusing on short-term employees with no prior connections would allow the research team to more easily ascertain the ban's causal effect.

"How strong the performance effects are in the longer term needs to be clarified by future research," Mechtel told The Academic Times. "The same applies to the question of how far our results can be generalized to other work contexts." 

He added that the researchers conducted a company survey as part of the study, which suggested that the potentially problematic influence of smartphones on workplace behavior exists in many sectors.

"However, future studies will have to clarify how strong the effects of a ban are in sectors other than the one we investigated," Mechtel said.

The study, "Smartphone bans and workplace performance," published May 3 in Experimental Economics, was authored by Adrian Chadi, University of Konstanz; Mario Mechtel, Leuphana University Lüneburg; and Vanessa Mertins, University of Vechta.

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