While smartphones help us stay in touch with colleagues, manage inboxes and complete urgent tasks on the move, they actually make us less productive when we’re working at our desks, according to a new psychological experiment by the Universities of Würzburg and Nottingham Trent.
The experiment commissioned by antivirus company Kaspersky Lab unearthed a correlation between productivity levels and the distance between participants and their smartphone. When their device was taken away, participant performance improved by 26 per cent. The experiment tested the behavior of 95 participants between 19 and 56 years of age in laboratories at the universities of Würzburg and Nottingham Trent. Care was taken to balance experimental conditions and gender across laboratory sites.
Researchers asked participants to perform a concentration test under four different circumstances: with their smartphone in their pocket, on their desk, locked in a drawer, and removed from the room completely. The results are significant – test results were lowest when the smartphone was on the desk, but with every additional layer of distance between participants and their smartphones, test performance increased. Overall test results were 26 per cent higher when phones were absent from the room.
Contrary to expectations, the absence of the smartphone didn’t make participants nervous. Anxiety levels were consistent across all experiments. However, in general, women were more anxious than their male counterparts, leading researchers to conclude that anxiety levels at work are not affected by smartphones (or the absence of smartphones), but can be impacted by gender.
“Previous studies have shown that on the one hand, separation from one’s smartphone has negative emotional effects, such as increased anxiety, but, on the other hand, studies have also demonstrated that one’s smartphone may act as an distractor when present,” says Jens Binder from the University of Nottingham Trent. “In other words, both the absence and presence of a smartphone could impair concentration.”
Astrid Carolus from the University of Würzburg adds, “In summary, our findings from this study indicate that it is the absence, rather than the presence, of a smartphone that improves concentration.”
The results of the experiment correlate with the findings of an earlier Kaspersky survey, Digital Amnesia at Work, which also demonstrated that digital devices can have a negative impact on concentration levels. It showed, for example, that typing notes into digital devices during a meeting lowers the level of understanding of what is actually happening in the session.
While banning digital devices from the workplace isn’t really an option, the findings of both surveys give businesses an insight on how to improve their productivity.
“Instead of expecting constant access to their smartphones, employee productivity may be improved if they have dedicated smartphone-free time,” says Aman M. Manzoor, Consumer Sales Director, Kaspersky Lab Middle East. “One way of doing this is to enforce meeting rules such as no distractions like smartphones or no unnecessary use of computers in the normal work environment. Businesses should also be aware that in today’s connected business landscape, lower concentration levels can be a security issue. Advanced targeted attacks, for example, can only be discovered if employees are alert and on the look-out for unexpected and unusual email content. It is therefore vital that businesses develop security processes, including training sessions, to increase employee alertness, whether employees are using their smartphones at work, or not.”
The reports are available for download here: