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Do smartphones hurt productivity?

Your smartphone might seem as essential at work as anywhere else.

Your employer might disagree.

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While most workers own mobile phones and keep them within sight, some employers see them as productivity killers and a few are banning or otherwise regulating them, experts say.

Three-quarters of employers polled in a recent Career Builder survey said two or more hours a day are lost in productivity because of distractions such as texting, the internet, social media and email, along with the more traditional time killers such as smoke breaks, visits from co-workers or office gossip. Fifty-five percent cited phones and texting for decreasing productivity, more than any other distraction.

The employers' perceptions reflect a growing problem that signals trouble beyond individual businesses, said Michael Erwin, a CareerBuilder senior career adviser.

"We do have a smartphone problem in our country," Erwin said. "In the workforce, you're going to see employers taking more and more steps."

The survey, conducted for CareerBuilder by Harris Poll, found that more than 80 percent of workers keep a smartphone in view throughout the workday, with two in three acknowledging that they use it at least several times while at work.

Such connectivity is not necessarily a bad thing. Many workers need to be in constant contact while on the job, whether by email, text or messaging. U.S. labor productivity has increased in recent years as smartphones became ubiquitous, though the measure of output per hour dipped slightly in the first quarter of this year, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

But phones also offer other temptations — games, social media and other apps. According to statistics compiled last month by New Theory Magazine, the average cellphone user checks it 110 times per day — or a daily total of 31/2 hours.

Employers are taking notice.

As technology has become more pervasive, it has become more common for companies to have policies governing cellphones, said Baskaran Ambalavanan, a senior human resource information systems manager at a California law firm who serves on a technology panel for the Society for Human Resource Management.

"It works to an extent, but becomes difficult to implement," he said. "It is a new challenge. ... I don't see a lot of companies having a functioning, effective policy" that integrates social media usage. "Anytime you are not doing something business-related, it does impact the productivity."

Some companies have banned cellphones, he said, including call centers where employees' devices are collected at the beginning of the day and kept in lockers until breaks.

"Companies are taking different steps based on the business they are in and the services they provide, particularly the health care industry," said Ambalavanan, of Sheppard Mullin, Richter & Hampton in Los Angeles. "You definitely need to have a robust policy that's clearly defined," such as using cellphones only for business during work hours, except in an emergency.

At M&T Bank Corp., managers have been working to strike a balance between employees' use of technology to stay in touch with customers and their becoming distracted by that technology.

"It isn't uncommon for commercial customers or consumers to expect to interact with bankers via the internet or via email or via cellphone," said Augie Chiasera, president of M&T Bank's Greater Baltimore region. "For those employees who have a relationship with customers, that digital device is an important contact for them to do what they do."

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M&T provides or pays for cellphones for some employees, he said.

The bank put policies in place for mobile devices several years ago and revises them as technology evolves, said Betsy Donnelly, manager of employee relations for the Buffalo, N.Y.-based company. The bank requires employees who work with customers to keep phones in drawers or away from work areas with ringers turned off.

"It's not a restrictive policy; it's just using common sense," Donnelly said. "We understand that our employees very well may need to have that personal cellphone with them for when their family, their friends, those important to them, need to reach them.

But, "when you are at work, we're expecting you to be productive and expect your cellphone isn't disruptive to you or to those around you," she said. "It's probably every employers' challenge to manage that ever-present access to breaking news alerts on smartphones and ever-present access to social media."

Three in four of the 2,186 hiring managers surveyed by Career Builder — including employers in health care, retail, sales, hospitality, information technology, manufacturing and financial services — said they have taken at least one step to reduce distractions, such as banning personal calls and or cellphones or blocking certain internet sites.

More than half the workers with smartphones did not have work emails on their phones and used their devices mostly for messaging, checking weather or news, playing games or shopping, the survey found. CareerBuilder surveyed 3,031 workers across a variety of industries.

Ronald Shannon, 31, who works in a customer service job in Baltimore, said cellphones are a constant presence for most in his workplace and that he and other workers turn to them during downtime to text or check Facebook or other sites. As far as he's concerned, that's fine, he said, "as long as you're doing your job."

Shannon said he can understand how high-security or health-related workplaces might need stricter rules.

But in his situation, "they don't want you using company equipment," he said. "If they were to open up company equipment to be able to use on downtime, I think that the excessive cellphone use would dwindle, but what else are you supposed to do on your downtime?"

Productivity and training consultant John F. Graham said he believes employers who have not put policies in place — and even workers — might not realize how much social media and smartphone use can hurt productivity. He recommends that employers set parameters for cellphones, restrict certain types of media and videos, and hold workers accountable for productivity levels.

Otherwise, scenarios such as one he observed at a small metals company can crop up. While consulting for the firm, Graham recalled, one employee in a cubicle near him spent much of her time checking Facebook.

"People would come by and ask, 'Can you do this?'" he said. After several similar requests, she responded, "'Look, I'm just one person.'"

Graham, a partner in Houston-based Accelerated Professionals, said, "That's how young people are connected today. ... We want them to be connected, healthy humans, but we don't want it eating into the productivity of the company. The challenge is, how do we differentiate that and stop employees from wasting time."

This story has been updated to reflect to correct title for Baskaran Ambalavanan.

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