Silencing the smartphone

Citing better productivity, some companies are trying to wean employees from constant contact with their electronic devices

Tanya Mohn

Resolutions to change behaviour are common at this time of year, but they usually involve exercising more or smoking less. Now, some companies are adopting policies aimed at weaning employees from their electronic devices.

Atos, an international IT company, plans to phase out all e-mails among employees by the end of 2013 and rely instead on other forms of communication. And starting in the new year, employees at Daimler, the German automaker, can have incoming e-mail automatically deleted during vacations so they do not return to a flooded in-box. An automatic message tells the sender which person is temporarily dealing with the employee's e-mail.

No one is expected to be on call at all hours of the day and night, and "switching off" after work is important, "even if you are on a business trip," said Sabrina Schrimpf, a Daimler spokeswoman, referring to the company's recently released report, "Balanced! Reconciling Employees' Work and Private Lives."

Disconnecting can be more challenging for business travelers who frequently work across time zones. And there is a ripple effect, said Leslie A Perlow, a professor of leadership at Harvard Business School and the author of "Sleeping With Your Smartphone." "These guys fly in the middle of the night and send e-mails back to colleagues" who wait up, ready to respond.

A study conducted last spring by the Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project found that while mobile phones were valued as a way to stay productive, there were downsides to being available at all times. The nationwide survey of 2,254 adults found that 44% of cellphone owners had slept with their phone next to their bed and that 67% had experienced "phantom rings," checking their phone even when it was not ringing or vibrating. Still, the proportion of cellphone owners who said they "could live without it" has gone up, to 37% from 29% in 2006.

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