In the middle of a meeting, an executive answers his mobile phone. In a busy office there is a blast of annoying, impossible-to-ignore ringtones. An employee chats on his mobile with his child about school, while another discusses dinner plans with her boyfriend.
Mobiles are becoming an increasing problem in the workplace with companies adopting policies to govern their use in the office, according to research from the US-based Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).
In an article in the New York Times, Rebecca Hastings, director of the SHRM information centre, called mobile phones “the cigarettes of this decade”. People are addicted, she said, and just as cigarettes are banned from some places, she predicts that more organisations will take a stance against mobiles.
“Mobile phones are very disruptive to the traditional workplace,” said Paul Levinson, chairman of the department of communications at New York’s Fordham University. “The mobile is a pipeline to anything and everything in the life of a person who possesses the phone, to boyfriends, girlfriends, children and parents,” he said.
Just as the introduction of the PC to the home diluted that environment as an exclusively private place, the mobile phone has diluted the office as exclusively a place of business, he added.
Last year, SHRM surveyed 379 HR professionals and found that 40% of companies had policies governing mobile use at work. Hastings said the policies are directed at safe use by those who drive on company business, personal use of company phones, as well as the use of personal phones at work as this disrupts others and affects productivity.
“In some cases a policy might be issued, in others a particular employee might be advised as to their own actions. In other cases employers might try to educate employees about business etiquette,” Hastings said.
As to etiquette, Alinda Lewris, president of the International Association of Protocol Consultants, said mobiles should be turned off during meetings or when with a client.
“If you are expecting an urgent call, I suggest that you ask if it is acceptable that you take an inaudible signal and, if so, leave the room for this call and make it brief,” she said.
“I would be certain that this call was of extreme importance, otherwise do not take a call during a meeting.”
Talking on mobiles is not the only problem. Levinson called texting “the cutting edge of subversion”. “You can be in a meeting and be having a text conversation with someone. People think you are at the meeting, but your mind is elsewhere,” he said.
Levinson doesn’t think companies are that successful in restricting mobile use. “There is little a supervisor can do if a worker excuses themselves to the toilet to use a mobile,” he added.
The world is becoming homogenised, with fewer distinctions between pleasure and work, according to Levinson. “The workplace is becoming less a ‘work’ place and more an all-purpose place,” he said.
“Psychologists know that the human is a multi-task being with his head wired to do more than one task,” Levinson said. “Therefore it’s not surprising that you can be using a mobile phone and doing something else, like being at work. It’s a fact of life we have to accept.”