Smart Policies for Smartphones: Managing Productivity
Some companies, famously, have game rooms for employees. Most organizations require that their employees abstain from gaming while at work, and some go so far as to block not only gaming Websites, but many social sites as well. When employees bring their own smartphones to work, however, and when they connect to the internet using their own networks, employers cannot simply block a site on their own server and think they've solved the problem of distracting technology.
Certainly, distracting technology has always been a challenge to organizations' leadership. When telephones were first introduced, managers feared that employees would spend time on personal calls. In the early- and mid-'90s, companies and government agencies banned employees from installing games on their computers, and had Microsoft remove the games from the operating systems they purchased. Within the past ten years, government workers have been fired because their bosses saw an open solitaire window on their desktop.
In one way, smartphones merely add a new facet into an old debate: does the occasional break--to play Pac Man, smoke a cigarette, or listen to Bon Iver--make workers less productive, or more? But because organizations cannot control either workers' personal devices nor their network, removing the distraction altogether is not possible, and monitoring is impractical. In short, while technology can help employees understand how they use their time, a purely technological fix is not available.
Agencies must therefore craft a policy that recognizes the limits of their control and adds a new (or renewed) emphasis on employees' accomplishing specified outcomes rather than on following certain procedures. Further, agencies will need to identify and invest in tools to help employees management themselves more effectively. In the short-run, this will mean more work for managers and a period--which I think would be brief--of uncertainty as the initial phase of a new regime progresses. But in the long-term, this will mean more productive work environments with greater employees satisfaction and retention.
This type of outcome-based management structure was adopted by two organizations the retail chain Best Buy and the Office of the Chief Technology Officer in Washington, DC. The latter experiment was ended prematurely, but the former was allowed to continue long enough that its results could be studied. In each organization, the policy they implemented is called "ROWE" for Results-only workplace environment. Studies yielded striking conclusions: employee-turnover rates declined by 90 percent; productivity rose an average of 41 percent.
Short of that, however, agencies can still require employees to come in to the office every day and grade them based on outcome. Agencies can also allow employees to install time-management tools, such as RescueTime, on their work computers so that they can track their own productivity.
Agencies and offices with information firewalls may require employees to leave their phones at the front desk. But for all others, banning smartphones as a way of controlling how employees spend their time is not practicable. Shifting responsibility for employees' accomplishment, however, is not only feasible, but often proves beneficial to productivity. As with facing the other challenges engendered by smartphones in the workplace, the essential activity is to identify and address the issue in an explicit use-policy.