Many of us can’t imagine our lives without our smartphones. From answering emails to checking the news, our mobiles are surely the most productive tools we have in our lives. Almost everything is faster, easier and more efficient — or is it?
Gerard O’Shaughnessy, director of Business Marketing Services in Cleckheaton, West Yorks certainly doesn’t think so. He recently became so annoyed by employees spending time on their phones he began confiscating them until lunchtime.
He’s not the only one. The Last Word cafe in the British Library is believed to have told staff to hand phones to a supervisor when at work.
However Anna Oldbury, founder of snack company Liobites, believes that the smartphone is essential to productivity: “I run a small company and my smartphone allows me to be flexible with work around family life,” she says. “I am able to answer important emails while out without the need of carrying a heavy laptop.”
So which is it? Modern marvels that facilitate our work wherever we go, or time-stealing temptations that send productivity through the floor?
It’s an important question to answer. Productivity, which measures the economic output created in every hour worked, is crucial to boosting wages and prosperity in the long run. If productivity stalls, so do living standards. And for the past decade, as smartphone sales have risen, productivity has struggled to grow.
It seems astonishing that the digital revolution unleashed by smartphones could have failed to have an impact.
Part of this could be mis-measurement — the gains from new technology may simply be missed by statisticians using techniques designed for a pre-digital age. After all, GDP in its modern form was designed more than 80 years ago.
Examples related to smartphones include digital photos and high accuracy GPS services. In both cases, the number consumed (for example number of photos taken) has increased dramatically, but overall measured output and sales in GDP of stand-alone cameras, photo, music and GPS equipment have gone down
It works best when adding up the value of transactions, but this is difficult when a lot of services offered on a smartphone are effectively free such as physical maps being replaced by pre-loaded apps.
A typical example that highlights this effect is the price of a phone bill, which may have only changed a little over the last decade. Meanwhile the volume of text messages, minutes and data provided in new bundles has grown exponentially.
Other examples related to smartphones include digital photos and high accuracy GPS services. In both cases, the number consumed (for example number of photos taken) has increased dramatically, but overall measured output and sales in GDP of stand-alone cameras, photo, music and GPS equipment have gone down.
Rewriting the story
If workers use their own smartphones in the office, that means companies do not have to buy the devices to distribute among their staff.
As a result an important component of capital is now provided by workers, and some investment in the digital economy evaporates. Only the consumption is spotted, when the worker buys the phone.
This is no bad thing for the economy — one phone doubles up for personal and work use, which is extremely efficient and did not happen in years gone by with desktop computers. Yet it reduces the obvious investment spending which is added to GDP, and so may be missing from the data.
Rewriting the story of the whole economy is a difficult and sensitive operation. On the other hand mismeasurement is not the only culprit for the lack of clear productivity growth.
Some studies, such as in the Journal of Experimental Psychology in 2015, suggest that notifications are the real bane of productivity. “We found that cellular phone notifications alone significantly disrupted performance on an attention-demanding task, even when participants did not directly interact with a mobile device,” the report noted.
“The magnitude of observed distraction effects was comparable in magnitude to those seen when users actively used a mobile phone.”
The theory goes that the incessant temptation of buzzing notifications and social media “fear of missing out” has reached such a height that workers cannot focus on the task at hand. As social creatures, our innate desire for contact is satisfied by a smartphone. It is why we find them so rewarding ... and so hard to resist.
However, the empirical evidence is less solid. While there were many studies suggesting the distraction of a smartphone hampers performance, smartphones did not impair performance.
There is more and more evidence coming out that suggests a disconnect between what people perceive and their performance, so we will need more robust research to address this mechanism of distractions.
All of which paints a rather conflicting picture of how the proliferation of smartphones in our daily lives has affected the economy and our productivity. When it comes to banning smartphones, or even self-regulation on checking Facebook, bosses may be tempted to err on the side of caution and restrict their use in the workplace. But even that could have complicated consequences.
“Taking a break from technology has a mix of both positive and negative effects on the user,” says Heather Shaw of Lancaster University. “We have dependencies on our smartphones to achieve our everyday tasks. Forcibly taking smartphones away from people could actually be of detriment to them, and not have the effects that employees intended.”
Mike Clancy, general secretary of specialist union Prospect, believes the issue is about trust: “The flexibility created by new tech has the potential to make work a much more enjoyable experience, but there is also the potential for workers to be subjected to greater control and coercive behaviour as a result. Companies are going to have to get far better at consulting with staff and giving them a collective voice in their workplaces, rather than controlling them and risking looking like staff cannot be trusted with new technology.”
With such conflicting evidence about the impact, it could be that he main issue over whether smartphones are making us more or less productive is individuals trusting themselves.
The computer in your pocket can effortlessly make you more efficient. But if you find its insistent buzz more frivolous than fruitful, perhaps the most productive piece of technology you can find is a nearby drawer.
Tom Hoggings is an award-winning designer and journalist. Tim Wallace is a tech writer.
The Daily Telegraph