Cell phones costly distractions in the workplace

Technological advances free us up, expand our world … and create all kinds of unintended problems.

Cell phones offer a perfect example. It’s hard to imagine doing business — or just getting through the day — without a cell phone. Yet, problems still arise.

The other day, my wife and I left our office and thought we had communicated clearly about where we were going to meet for dinner. I went to the “right restaurant” and she went to the “right restaurant.” For some reason, neither of us had our cell phones. We both borrowed phones from unsuspecting diners who felt sorry for of us because our spouses had apparently “stood us up.” We both left messages on cell phones that weren’t with the other person. We couldn’t understand why we didn’t have instant communication. Looking back, the situation was pretty funny. The weird thing was, we both felt disoriented and a bit helpless without those awful little electronic devices.

Just to clear the air: I’m not in any way ready to give up my cell phone. I’m a slave to the darn thing, just like most of the rest of the people in the modern world. If you travel outside the United States, you’ll find that inhabitants of even the poorest countries are also attached to their cell phones. It’s just a little crazy.

While I believe we all can sympathize and relate in some way to our personal cell phone stories of woe, cell phones have created problems in the workplace.

n Time and productivity theft: The largest of these is time theft. I’ve written in the past about time management systems that put money back in employers’ pockets by accurately recording work time. For purposes of review and general understanding, I’ll restate a couple of statistics. The average recovered time in favor of the employer in converting from a paper honor time keeping system to an electronic system is about 6 minutes a day per worker. That adds up to 26 hours a year for a five-day-a-week worker. Consider the cost to an employer who pays an employee $12 an hour, plus another $1.28 an hour in payroll taxes, Medicare and worker’s compensation. It adds up to $345 a year. Estimating the value of productivity at three times wages, lost productivity over the course of a year is greater still at $1,380.

n Texting: Many people receive 10 to 20 or more text messages a day. My children probably receive and send more than 50 messages a day. Let’s look at some numbers. Being conservative, let’s say an employee spends only 10 minutes a day sending and receiving messages. I suspect that many business owners would place these numbers closer to 30 minutes a day. If it is only 10 minutes a day, you might think that’s not too bad. The cumulative math for a year gets a bit scary, however. Multiplying 10 minutes by 260 work days produces 2,600 minutes a year. Divide that total by 60 minutes and the result is 43.3 hours per worker. At $12 an hour plus other expenses, that’s $575 in overpaid wages and $1,726 in lost productivity — a total of $2,301 per worker. Lost wages for five workers over a year comes to $2,875.

If you employ people who’re really attached to their cell phones, you don’t really want to do the math for 30 to 45 minutes a day.

Let me suggest a simple way for you to push money back to your bottom line: Require your employees to turn their cell phones off during working hours. Tell them they can give out the office phone number to family for emergency purposes only and use their cells during breaks and lunch. Some business owners make work time cell phone use a firing offense. That’s not a bad idea considering the costs involved. If an employee was caught stealing $1,000 in company funds from your business, they’d likely be fired on the spot.

Business owners worry about the possible consequences of such a cell phone policy, concerned their employees will throw a fit or even quit. My suggestion is to simply tell employees the truth. Show them the math. Most employees don’t really want to lose their jobs — or have the business they work for fail. Most employees probably haven’t considered the real costs. And if they don’t care, you don’t need them as employees.

As the work world changes, business owners must adapt or fail. I realize this is a tough one culturally, but owners should at least recognize the cost and do their best to limit or even eliminate losses related to employee cell phone use. This will not only create a more effective and productive workplace, but it also will most assuredly improve the bottom line.

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