In an effort to reach employees where they are – and on the screen they’re already looking at – HR and communications leaders want to leverage employee smartphones. They see the smartphone as an opportunity to reach their hard-to-reach employees. Many of their fellow leaders respond with fears and hesitations. Instead of finding ways to work through the potential concerns, they put up roadblocks.

“Our plant leadership is not willing to put anything in place that may give employees a reason to use their phones while at work. This is already a big problem now – employees aren’t allowed to have their phones out, but they have them out all the time.”

Does this sound familiar? We have heard this feedback many times from communication leaders at various companies.

“If I give my employees access to an app, they’ll have an excuse to be on their phones while on the line / at work / with a customer.”

While this is certainly an understandable concern, it’s likely that cell phone policies in companies across the globe will experience a significant shift over the next few years.

When cell phones were first popularized for the masses, schools faced a similar challenge. In the early 2000s, middle and high school students started bringing their new cell phones to school. While you could certainly make the argument that kids having cell phones helped parents and kept kids safer, these early model Nokias and Razors brought with them a long list of potential distractions. Teachers now had to be mindful of texting and games in class while also monitoring usage to ensure phones weren’t being used to cheat.

Nearly every education system initially reacted with an all-out ban. They responded with declarative rules stating that students were not allowed to bring their cell phones to school at all, and anyone caught violating this would have his/her phone taken away by school leadership until a parent retrieved it. I was a student during this era, and I, along with my siblings and friends, still took my phone to school daily. I kept my phone hidden and only checked it during breaks and after school, but I definitely did not abide by the ban. Particularly as I started driving myself to school, my parents supported my rule-breaking, because they considered it to be a safety issue.

Simply put, the all-out ban was not effective. Without a permitted time to use our phones, we were constantly sneaking around, even if the text we were sending was a perfectly legitimate (and necessary) note to mom saying “Yes, I can take my brother home from school today.” Teachers had no margin to say, “Please put your phone away – you can take care of that during your next break when phone use is permitted.”

In the last 10 years, schools have developed more progressive policies. More than 70 percent of school districts have moved from an all-out ban to policies that seek to monitor and regulate usage. Some schools have even opted for open cell phone policies, encouraging the use of mobile devices in the classroom for their helpful benefits (see examples here and here).

Many companies, particularly manufacturing facilities, are now going through a similar process. The gut reaction across assembly lines, restaurants, and other large employers have been implementing an all-out ban on mobile devices.

Why?

Companies have good reasons to put this rule in place – here are a few:

  • Safety risk – distractions from cell phones can cause increased injury
  • Customer service issues – texting friends/family could keep employees from interacting with customers
  • Reduced productivity – preoccupation with smartphones (aka checking Facebook, playing Candy Crush) could hinder productivity

These concerns are valid and should absolutely be managed through a cell phone policy.

Zero companies on the planet are interested in inviting more safety and customer service issues into their business. No one is looking for ways to decrease productivity. But should the risk of distraction really warrant an all-out ban on these devices that have become such an integral part of our daily lives?

Companies with these restrictive policies in place likely face the same issues that schools did in the early days of cell phone pervasiveness. Employees may be driven to make poor choices about cell phone usage because an all-out ban is so unrealistic for our hyper-connected lives.

In this article from Modern Machine Show, several manufacturing leaders shared their cell phone policies and how they manage potential distractions.

“We allow employees’ phones to be on, but we have a policy of only calling, texting or emailing members of our BRD team [during work hours]. This allows for quick and efficient workflow. Everyone appreciates this—they can still see texts from friends or family. We discuss the distraction factor often, so as to teach people how to structure their response to this new technology appropriately. We have young people who only have a cell phone, no landline. Some have thanked us for talking about this; it has helped them in life outside of work.” – John Baklund, owner, Baklund R&D

John brings up a great point: while cell phones can be a distraction, they can also be used as a means for creating a more efficient workflow and driving higher output.

Need ideas for an alternative cell phone policy? Check out this guide from Workable. Consider moving away from an all-out ban, and work with your HR, legal, and operations team to find a policy that will work with your workforce, boost morale, and help make your team more productive.