Two friends from New Zealand are to launch a “boring” smartphone after they realized the average device had become an “endless sinkhole sucking away your precious time”.
Insurance lawyer Alex Davidson – who calculated he was using his smartphone for 25 hours a week – and data scientist Jasper Mackenzie designed the BoringPhone which is being geared up for a funding round on Kickstarter.
The handset lets users make calls, send texts, listen to music and podcasts, use maps, and take photos. But it has no social media apps, internet browser or email – or any way to install them – so users can “take back control”.
But is removing temptation really a smart solution to our global distraction disorder?
Smartphones enable our always-on culture, where even the briefest moment of downtime prompts us to scroll through never-ending feeds designed to keep us hooked. With technology at our fingertips, we no longer have reason to be bored, so we’ve forgotten how to be.
But the problem goes deeper than that. Smartphones can also steal our attention away from what we’re paid to be doing, hampering our productivity at work.
How often do you begin the day with great intentions, only to finish it with no sense of achievement? The permanent state of distraction doesn’t help. That sales call from an insurance company, that email from your accountant, the news headlines flashing up on your screen, the calendar notification about that car service you urgently need to schedule.
Distractions sneak in, legitimized by us as tasks we absolutely have to do at this very moment. And some distractions, like booking holidays, can even be downright enjoyable.
This explains why some employers are tearing their hair out over smartphone overuse. Some companies, like FedEx, have even tried draconian bans.
So what is the best course of action? A blanket ban, a ‘reasonable use’ policy or a grown-up conversation?
Paul Gottsegen, executive VP and chief marketing officer at Mindtree, believes there should be a workplace smartphone policy even though his company currently has none.
He explained: “Most people in meetings are checking Facebook, email and news. Few are providing their undivided attention. Six months ago I stopped bringing any electronics into meetings and it was as if a whole new world of possibilities opened up to me to focus and contribute, helping to guide the discussion. At the same time, when you have no electronics, you’ll begin to notice that no one is paying attention to the issue at hand.”
In his own staff meetings, Gottsegen has implemented a ‘pen and paper only’ rule which, he says, has led to better discussions.
But Chintan Shah, president and managing partner of KNB Communications, has found a wholly liberal approach leads to increased productivity and employee satisfaction.
He explained: “It is important to remember that while employees have work-related tasks, they are also people with personal lives and familial obligations. Allowing our employees to use their phones freely at work conveys that we know they are capable enough to use their phones from time to time while still putting in a solid day’s work. It creates a more positive environment, and encourages our employees to work productively.”
Christopher Lee, business strategy consultant at PurposeRedeemed agrees, pointing out that some companies that have trialed bans on smartphone use reversed their decisions later on. He added: “I don’t believe there’s a one-size-fits-all policy that works. Treat your employees like the adults they are. Encourage them to use discernment and demonstrate professionalism. But hold them accountable for outcomes, not arbitrary process measures such as their smartphone usage.”
Lee makes an interesting point. In working environments where employees manage their own time and are measured on results rather than hours, distraction is not an option.
While gathering research, bestselling author Nir Eyal found that companies having issues with employees distracted by tech all had one thing in common – a sick culture.
He told me: “By a sick or dysfunctional culture I mean they can’t talk about their problems. Tech distraction is just a problem like any other and what we find is the companies that struggle with technological distraction have all kinds of other skeletons in the closet, all kinds of other things that people don’t want to talk about.”
By contrast, Eyal found that companies with healthy organizational cultures did not have problems with technological distraction, even if their employees used technology heavily. It would suggest bosses that react to smartphone overuse problems by banning phones are barking up the wrong tree; they should be looking inwards, at their cultures, to find a solution.
Humans like distractions, which explains why we’re always trying to find them. They spare us from the really difficult tasks we need to devote time to and exhaust brain power on. They rescue us from having to face the reality of figuring out how to solve complex problems.
But when people are autonomous, in control of their own time, and responsible for their output at work – just as entrepreneurs are – then they are also responsible for creating their own rules around smartphone use that won’t hamper their productivity.
Tech distraction in workplaces, then, can be a symptom and a telltale sign of a toxic culture.
But I suspect we could all do with addressing how smartphones affect our personal time, our relationships and our manners, just as BoringPhone hopes to do.