I’ve always liked the month of January because it brings a fresh start to a new year. This time of year is filled with hope and optimism for a better year than the previous one. People make resolutions to improve themselves — both in their personal and professional lives. 

One of my goals this coming year is to live more in the moment and start limiting cell phone usage — which is harder than it sounds given my occupation. I am often required to take photos and video while traveling to industry conferences and events, and publish them to our various social media platforms, which, depending on the strength of the Wi-Fi signal, can sometimes take a while. So, if you see me at one such event and my nose is buried in my phone, please don’t judge! 

Smartphones have come a long way in the past decade. These devices are now our lifelines, and we take them everywhere. I’ve caught myself taking out my phone to take pictures during family gatherings, send text messages through-out the day, or check news and social media during meals with my husband. And even if I don’t pick up the phone initially, constant notifications can quickly distract me from the task at hand. It can become a real time suck on productivity, especially during working hours. 

According to a survey from staffing firm OfficeTeam, the average office employee spends 56 minutes per day using their cell phone at work for non-work activity. Personal email and social media makes up the majority of the wasted time, with sports sites, mobile gaming and shopping placing a far distant third, fourth and fifth place.

Sometimes, it’s not even enough to simply set your phone down. Researchers at Harvard University conducted a study to find out whether simply having a smartphone nearby could influence cognitive abilities. They asked participants to either place their phones in front of them facedown on their desks, keep them in their pockets or bags, or leave them in another room.

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. The research showed that merely having a smartphone out on the desk led to a small but significant impairment of individuals’ cognitive capacity that was on par with the effects of lacking sleep.

Take a moment to think about that in terms of your employees’ productivity while on the job. Smartphones are great tools for technicians in the field, allowing them to view troubleshooting and installation videos, manuals and look up equipment specifications. But what does the customer think if your technician is constantly checking his phone during the entire service call? Will they think your employee is lazy or unprofessional? What about your office staff? Are they constantly whipping out their phones between calls or in meetings? What type of impression does that leave?

Constant cell phone use can also be a safety hazard in the field in the form of distracted driving. In 2017, there were 3,166 people killed in motor vehicle crashes involving distracted drivers, per the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Additionally, the agency reported that during daylight hours, about 660,000 drivers are using cell phones while driving. This presents an enormous risk for accidents and injuries, especially for service companies, such as plumbing and heating contractors, whose employees spend much of their time on the road traveling either way on jobsites.

Many companies have established cell phone policies limiting employee usage of personal mobile devices during working hours in order to limit distractions. In turn, they also have policies governing the use of company-paid cell phones. 

I know of several companies who employ the use of the ‘do not disturb’ feature on employees’ cell phones while they are operating company vehicles. I've also heard of other companies using hardware devices which stop all mobile distractions while operating a vehicle, including texts, phone calls, email and web browsing.

There’s no question that cell phones can be helpful in the workplace; however, when productivity starts to decline, it can become a real problem. So take some time to review your company’s cell phone usage policy and update it, if needed. Let’s start 2020 off the right way.