Smartphones, are we addicted?

As the internet and social media intermingle with work and leisure time, smartphones seem always to be in our lives

How often do you check your smartphone a day? Most people tell researchers it averages between 20 and 30 times. Yet what shocks people is that when their mobile phone usage is actually monitored, the number is more like 85 times a day.

Sally Andrews of Nottingham Trent University was one of the first researchers to measure phone usage, not by asking users themselves, but by using technology to monitor when the screen switched on and off.

“It was a bit of a shocker for some to be told that they were using their phones for up to half of a working day,” says Dr Andrews. “Our subjects didn’t really believe it.”

She says increasing smartphone use is in part down to a blending of the boundaries between working and private lives as some companies now expect employees to be at the end of a text or e-mail 24/7, throwing the traditional nine to five out the window.  At the same time, individuals are now beginning to think that it is perfectly acceptable to check their social media messages in the office.

Dr Andrews’ study monitored people over the course of 14 days, both day and night, and for each subject they created a “barcode” plotting usage.

Drilling into the data in more depth, the team showed that the average amount of time spent on the phone was more than five hours. Over half the incidences of using the phone were less than 30 seconds in distraction, suggesting subconscious checking for new messages or reacting to notifications.

So should mobile usage in the workplace be discouraged? The jury is out on whether using a smartphone boosts or saps productivity.

The connectivity conundrum

Research carried out by Frost & Sullivan and paid for by smartphone manufacturer Samsung of 500 executives found that respondents believed they gained an hour in both work and personal time from using smartphones. The research claimed that productivity among these executives had increased by 34 per cent.

By contrast, a survey of 2,186 human resource professionals for CareerBuilder in early-2016 found that one in five believed their workers were productive for less than five hours a day. Some 55 per cent of employers said employee mobile phone use was the culprit.

Rosemary Haefner, chief human resources officer at CareerBuilder, says: “While we need to be connected to devices for work, we’re also a click away from alluring distractions from our personal lives like social media and various other apps. The connectivity conundrum isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it needs to be managed. Have an open dialogue with employees about tech distractions. Acknowledge their existence and discuss challenges and solutions to keeping productivity up.”

In some of the most recent research into this area, Cary Stothart and colleagues at Florida State University found that just receiving notifications was detrimental. The team asked participants in a study to carry out an attention-demanding computer task. Some of these were interrupted by a mobile phone call, some with a text and some were not disturbed.

The authors of the research paper say: “Although these notifications are generally short in duration, they can prompt task-irrelevant thoughts or mind-wandering, which has been shown to damage task performance. Cellular phone notifications alone significantly disrupt performance on an attention-demanding task, even when participants do not directly interact with a mobile device during the task.”

With people checking their phones 85 times a day on average, the obvious question to ask is whether we are addicted to them.

‘Screenage’ junkies

Telecoms regulator Ofcom carries out research into device and internet usage every year in its Communications Market Report.

Our love affair with the web isn’t always plain surfing and many people admit to feeling hooked

In an indication of what we might expect in years to come, younger people are revealed as spending far more time on their smartphones (five hours a day) than the average two hours. This age group is also better at multitasking, such as sending messages while simultaneously watching television, cramming in 13 hours and 11 minutes of media and communications activity into 8 hours and 56 minutes of actual time on their devices. The “screenager” generation is certainly growing up.

Ofcom’s research shows that mobile phones are increasingly encroaching on our working lives with most saying they have increased the flexibility of working life, but no doubt meaning that is harder than ever to switch off.

The 2016 Ofcom report says adult users in the UK are spending an average of one day a week online. Three out of five internet users admitted they considered themselves hooked on their device while just over a third said they found it hard to disconnect.

Jane Rumble, Ofcom’s director of market intelligence, says: “The internet has revolutionised our lives for the better. But our love affair with the web isn’t always plain surfing and many people admit to feeling hooked.

“So millions of us are taking a fresh look at the role of technology in our lives and going on a digital detox to get a better tech-life balance.”

Unifying company communications

Despite the potential risks to productivity, companies are actively introducing smartphone technology to help in many areas, such as increasing the flexibility of their workforce, particularly as many employers have adopted hot-desking and allowing employees to work from home.

Unified communications (UC) systems have been at the forefront of this trend. Early UC systems were simply a way of enabling calls on fixed landlines to be forwarded to mobile devices. Now UC systems additionally comprise elements such as real-time staff directories to show whether employees are present in the office or are on the road, desktop-based video conferencing as well as integrated instant messaging. Such systems enable virtual call centres, where employees are in different locations with the consumer blissfully unaware. They are also helping to reduce the costs of business travel for internal meetings.

The UC market is now forecast to be worth $96 billion by 2023, according to Global Market Insights, on the back of rising adoption of mobile devices.

Rather than trying to fight the use of smartphones in the workplace, some companies are actively embracing it.

Smart businesses

Facebook has recently launched a work-based platform for collaboration called Workplace by Facebook. The social media giant has been using the system internally for a number of years and started testing the service with a thousand companies, including Starbucks, Danone, Oxfam and Booking.com, in countries around the world a year ago.

Workplace includes the Newsfeed, Chat and Group features familiar to users of the personal version of Facebook, but also new features such as analytics and single sign-on with enterprise IT systems. There are also multi-company groups, enabling companies in supply chains, for example, to collaborate in the mobile environment.

Waitrose is one of a number of companies recognising that smartphones have a key role to play in the workplace. Over the summer it rolled out its Quick Check “scan as you shop” app to members of its myWaitrose loyalty scheme on both iOS and Android.

The app replaces the retailer’s initial Quick Check service, which is based on dedicated hand-held scanners and has run for the past ten years. The new app means customers can now scan items in their basket with their own smartphone.

Matt Clifton, the company’s head of retail change, says: “We know that customers are shopping little and often, and therefore want the experience to be as convenient as possible. Being able to complete a whole shopping experience using only a smartphone means that shoppers can scan as they go, benefit from tailored offers, detailed product information and pay anywhere in the shop. The dynamic world of smartphone technology means that the future capabilities of this app are endless.”

Ultimately, the smartphone and other mobile technologies are certain to be ever-present in the workplace and younger employees will expect to be able to use them, even if they are unwittingly becoming addicted. It is incumbent on employers to make sure they are used for the corporate good.

CASE STUDY: Utilita – A smart way to run a company

Smartphone showing Utilita app

You will probably hear a lot about the so-called internet of things in the next few years. It is essentially the idea of connecting otherwise dumb objects, such as fridges and traffic lights, to the internet using mobile technology to enable them to work smarter or help users save money.

The growth in the number of companies working in ways that would have been impossible without mobile connectivity is growing by the day, from the pregnant cows with Moocall sensors on their tails to alert the farmer when they are about to give birth, to clever cars that communicate with each other to stop them colliding, despite what the person behind the wheel does.

Another company that has mobile connection at the heart of its business model is pay-as-you-go energy company Utilita.

The company was founded in 2004 on a hunch that smart meters – electricity meters permanently connected to the mobile phone network – would be a perfect solution for pre-pay customers.

What is attracting prepay customers to the company is innovation in technology, giving customers smart meters and the ability to pay via an app when their credit runs out rather than racing to a shop on a rainy night to top up their account.

Prepay customers have typically paid a premium to buy their electricity, but Utilita has put an end to that.

“Price is what we sell on – it will save you a bob,” says chief executive Bill Bullen. “The thing that gets people is that we have applied modern technology to the problem and it is making the stigma of prepay disappear. Lots of people have prepay mobile phones so topping up using a mobile phone is almost anti-stigma.”

Utilita has now grown to represent 10 per cent of the prepay market and customer growth shows no sign of slowing. It expects to sign up its 500,000th customer by Christmas and has recently moved into new offices to accommodate its now more than 600 staff.

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