You’re at work. The afternoon is dragging. You have a quick glance at your feed, do a swift update, maybe answer a message about what you’re doing later, then get back to the task at hand. Is this wrong? Does it slow you down, or does taking a mini break – like a cigarette break, before we stopped having them – give you a moment to reset yourself, and work even better when you resume?
Or is it a distraction? And if it is, is it then ever acceptable to expect people to surrender their mobile phones at the office? To hand them over on arrival at work, and get them back at lunchtime? Or is that making five year olds of the adult workforce?
Some employers think that confiscating mobile devices from their staff is acceptable. The director of a Yorkshire marketing company, Gerard O’Shaughnessy, toldhow: “We’ve had (young female staff) have complete meltdowns when they’ve come to work and been told they need to put their phone in a box.
Others have said it’s almost breaching their human rights. It’s almost like a separation anxiety.
“When we didn’t have this policy in place people would be checking social media updates during staff meetings. They’re utterly addicted to their phones. Every customer I deal with tells me exactly the same happens in their organisation with younger staff.”
When Mr O’Shaughnessy says that the confiscation of mobiles is “almost like a separation anxiety”, he is almost correct – it is entirely separation anxiety. It’s called nomophobia, and according to a 2010 study which coined the term, 58% of men and 47% of women in the UK suffer from it; it’s the anxiety felt when cut off from one’s mobile device.
It’s not about curating your Instafeed or WhatsApping the cat – most people reported nomophobia at the idea of not being able to contact loved ones. It’s not just a slight twinge of anxiety, but registers somewhere between wedding day nerves and pre-dentist trepidation.
While major retailers such as Tesco expect staff to place mobiles in their lockers during working hours, the idea of office workers surrendering their phones has been called “a new front for friction” by a trades union leader in the UK. You can see why.
Primary school children have to put their phones in a box at the start of the school day, and are given them back at going home time; adult office workers may well object to such infantilisation.
Being required to hand personal property to management on arrival at work could be interpreted as a lack of trust, an overarching need to control, or both; it seems unconducive to bolstering staff morale. You cannot increase productivity if your workforce is resentful. Staff at a café in the British Library in London are required to surrender their phones; this policy is currently under investigation after a professor from the London School of Economics made a complaint.
This phone surrendering has not yet become an issue in Ireland – there are no plans to introduce bans on phones in the workplace, beyond the usual use of lockers. A source from one of the main Irish trades unions believes that while employees’ mobile phone use at work is not currently an issue for Irish employers, were actual confiscation to be introduced rather than the voluntary practice of placing phones in lockers, unions would firmly oppose it.
Nobody from the Irish Business and Employers Confederation (IBEC) was available for comment.
Obviously, there are some jobs where mobile phone use must remain a no-no; anything that involves driving, for a start; the emergency services; the medical profession; the teaching profession. And absolutely those who work with young children – increasingly, nannies are being requested not to use mobiles when caring for their charges.
This is not just a safe guarding issue – we all know how small kids need hawk-eyed attention – but a developmental one. The psychological development of young children relies on facial mirroring, and you cannot mirror back to a toddler if your face is directed entirely at your screen.
There’s something a bit heart-breaking about a small face gazing up expectantly at an adult face, which in turn is gazing at a smart phone, oblivious. This is not to shame exhausted parents, however, but nannies are different – they’re on a payroll.
However, to expect humanity – particularly digital natives born with smart phones – to put our devices down is a nonsense. We are, as Russell T Davies predicted in his just-a-little-bit-futuristic series Years and Years, not that far from actual tech implants. We are not that distant from becoming our own devices, and to attempt to reverse or slow down this inevitable merge with our digital selves is entirely futile.
We need constructive solutions, not confiscation.