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A corporate resolution: admit the smartphone problem

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Tanya Mohn

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Switching off is hard to do...

Switching off is hard to do... Photo: Jim Rice

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

Atos, an international information technology company, plans to phase out all emails among employees by the end of 2013 and rely instead on personal communication. And starting in the new year, employees at Daimler, the German automaker, can have incoming email automatically deleted during holidays so they do not return to a flooded inbox. An automatic message tells the sender which person is temporarily dealing with the employee's email.

No one is expected to be on call at all hours of the day and night, switching off and observing quiet periods 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 travellers who frequently work across time zones and put in long hours.

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 emails 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 2254 adults found that 44 per cent of mobile phone owners had slept with their phone next to their bed and that 67 per cent had experienced "phantom rings," checking their phone even when it was not ringing or vibrating. Still, the proportion of phone owners who said they "could live without it" has gone up, to 37 per cent from 29 per cent in 2006.

Sam Chapman, chief executive of Empower Public Relations in Chicago, said he used to feel phantom vibrations and frequently read and sent email on his BlackBerry in the middle of the night. He slept poorly, did not feel refreshed in the morning and considered himself addicted.

"I wanted to make sure that what happened to me didn't happen to my employees," he said.

So Chapman adopted what he called a BlackBerry blackout policy. He and his staff of about 20 turn off their BlackBerrys from 6 pm to 6 am on weekdays and completely on weekends for all work-related use, with rare exceptions. "When I'm well rested, I show up to work ready to go, hit it hard, and then stop and become a human being," he said.

He maintains that regimen while traveling, and said the policy had increased company productivity.

Perlow agreed that companies could improve their bottom line by encouraging employees to turn off their devices at times.

"Being constantly on actually undermines productivity," she said.

Harder than it sounds

But it is not always easy. When Michelle Barry, Mark Jacobsen and a third partner created Centric Brand Anthropology, a Seattle-based company that advises clients on brand strategy, design and culture management, they gave serious thought to the issue.

"From the beginning, a huge priority for us was to have a good balance between work-life," said Jacobsen, Centric's vice president and creative director. "Yet we have found that very difficult to do while working with large multinational clients," which often require international travel and constant availability.

Being a start-up compounded those challenges.

"Just because you can email at 2 am, doesn't mean it's a good thing," he said.

Centric encourages employees to prepare a week before a trip, designating a colleague as back-up, informing clients about their travel plans, warning that contact may be sporadic and trying to avoid deadlines immediately after they return. Employees are also encouraged to take spouses or partners on longer assignments and to build in downtime, said Barry, the company's president and chief executive. When travelling herself, she said, "I make a commitment to myself not to stay up all night answering emails" and to limit it to about 30 minutes. She jots down after-hours thoughts using pen and paper.

Momentum growing

Experts say there is no firm data for how many companies have policies restricting the use of electronic devices outside the office.

"The companies I know actively encourage workers to stay connected after hours and on weekends," said Dennis J. Garritan, a managing partner of the private equity firm Palmer Hill Capital and an adjunct professor at Harvard Business School.

"It's positioned as a win-win," he said: Employees remain aware of what's going on and feel less overwhelmed when they return to the office, and the company benefits because employees are more engaged and productive even when away.

Wayne Rivers, president of the Family Business Institute, a consulting firm in Raleigh, NC, said many companies "value employees who answer their phones at 1 in the morning." In most cases, it is left up to each worker "to manage his life balance issues and exercise the discipline necessary to avoid exhaustion and burnout."

Christopher R. Bennett, senior transport specialist for the World Bank, who spent about five months travelling for work in 2012, found his own way to cope.

"There is a reason they are called 'CrackBerries,"' said Bennett, who refused to accept a BlackBerry when it was offered several years ago. "What I have observed from my colleagues who have BlackBerrys is that because of the pressures of work, especially as we deal with different time zones, they are continually checking and responding to emails. At home. At dinner. At the gym. On weekends. They never switch off. Since I have such an addictive personality, I didn't want it."

Stuart Fisher, head of the personal and work stress counseling unit for the World Bank, said that while the bank did not have an official policy restricting the use of electronic devices outside of work hours and had not found it to be a problem, it viewed the issue in the broader context of promoting a healthy work-life balance. Devoting "sufficient time to themselves is imperative," he wrote in an email.

He added, though, that in a global organisation, "ready access to staff is critically important, not just to ensure the success of the various missions and projects, but also for accountability purposes as our staff members travel to remote, austere and potentially hazardous environments in the poorest areas of the world."

Sherry Turkle, a professor of the social studies of science and technology at MIT and author of Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other, said she thought more companies would adopt similar policies.

"I'm optimistic, because I think that everybody is feeling the pinch," she said. Employees are too busy using devices to have the conversations that matter and are necessary to get business done, she said.

"I don't use the metaphor of addiction," said Turkle, who is also a psychologist. "We're not going to give it up. We shouldn't give it up. It's more like food, and being on a digital diet. The questions we should ask are, 'What are the healthy choices?"'

In December 2011, Brazil passed a law that makes it legal for workers who deal with emails after hours to claim overtime pay. Volkswagen, German telco Deutsche Telekom and consumer goods maker Henkel have also introduced measures to curb after-hours emails to reduce the pressure on workers to be always on call.

New York Times

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