Banning Mobile Phones at Work

I was asked by a client recently whether it’s OK to ban mobile phones. Their plan was to establish a box in to which mobile phones would be placed on arrival and collected at the end of the day.

Immediately I’m picturing the teachers at my kids’ primary school, standing with the mobile phone box at home time.  I love this idea for kids, but I’m definitely struggling to justify its use for adults at their place of work…

There are some instances where banning mobile phones during work is beneficial – for example safety critical roles, customer service or where there are safeguarding concerns.   In these cases there is a clear rationale.  We can clearly demonstrate we’re not being draconian.  There is a reason.

These examples aside, productivity and performance are the two most common concerns associated with mobile phone usage in the workplace.  As in the particular case of the client who prompted me to write this post, they have established times when performance issues have been identified.  However, in other cases where I’ve discussed banning mobile phones with clients, I ask what problems they are causing and more often than not there is no specific answer.

Banning mobile phones will not solve performance problems.  Mobile phones are a symptom, not the problem, at least not across a whole company.  There may be an employee with a game addiction which stops them from working.  So, let’s tackle this issue with that individual.  Banning mobile phones across the whole company will not solve that discrete problem case, only causing damage with others.

Let’s think about this for a moment from the employee’s point of view.  Being able to respond to a message or answer an urgent call are part of the work-life balance.  I’m not suggesting this means we should be allowing someone to sit and chat to their mates all day, disturbing the rest of the office and not doing any work, as that behaviour would clearly not be acceptable.  However for the rest, what’s the problem with a reasonable quick call when the employee’s performance is otherwise good?

If you want an employee to give a little extra, perhaps sometimes stay late to hit a deadline, then banning their ability to stay in touch with family and friends will be counter productive.  Why would an employee stay late or give extra if they can’t even send a quick text message?

Mobile phones are so much more these days.  They’re “smart”.  Pretty much everything we can do on a phone we can do on a desktop, lots we can even do on a watch.  The delineation between devices capabilities, reflecting their usage, is rarely clear.  How often do we see people catching up with work on the train home?  This is because devices allow them to.

The divide between work and home is increasingly being blurred, so expecting work to blur into home without home blurring into work is unrealistic.

With the exception of those few cases where I can see a strong argument for banning mobile phones, doing so feels like treating employees like children.  I suspect if we treat them like children they’ll act like them.  It’s a snap answer to the wrong question.  It’s almost always counter productive and will not solve the performance problem.


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