Perhaps it should come as little surprise that smartphones give people a sense of personal connection—that we use them throughout the day to stay in touch with friends and family through text messages, e-mail, Facebook and phone calls. However, recent studies paint a picture of startling social change as these multitasking minicomputers become all but universal, both at work and at home.
A recent IDC study sponsored by Facebook, Always Connected: How Smartphones and Social Keep Us Engaged, is among the latest to show that adults are using these devices to communicate with friends and family from morning to night.
“Smartphones have revolutionized how we communicate, socialize, share and connect,” the IDC report notes. “The immediacy and intimacy we have with our phones enable much more fluid and near-constant social interactions, whether these are short snacking sessions, where we read our news feeds, or more engaged private messaging conversations between two people or among a group.”
All of this connectedness raises productivity and work-life-boundary issues for employers to consider when setting policies on smartphone use, although the report doesn’t explore the personal use of smartphones at work.
The number of workers using smartphones—nearly half of the U.S. population and growing as of 2012—coupled with heavy personal use, seems to demand that HR managers help employees remain productive amid the distractions of 24-hour connectedness.
Kathy Neeves, founder and owner of Evolution HR Services, which serves small businesses on Vancouver Island in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, told SHRM Online that her clients have raised concerns about workers being focused on personal issues via technology during paid work time. She said those who employ hourly workers “want to ensure that policies support an environment where all hours they pay for are actually being worked, regardless of what distractions may exist. Typically, these clients require employees to use their smartphones, etc., only during formal break periods.”
Many companies, however, hire professional-level individuals who are salaried and frequently work extra hours to ensure that business goals are met, she said. And many executives work with people in other countries, “so they make themselves available during very early mornings, very late nights or weekends to participate in conference calls,” Neeves pointed out. “In these organizations, where the employer steps into the employee’s personal time, they expect that employees’ personal issues may also step into their ‘work’ time. There is far greater flexibility available, and, at the end of the day, employees are held accountable for achieving their goals.
“I’ve seen many organizations block access to Facebook, etc., via the company server, although there is always pushback from marketing and human resources [regarding] who uses the various technologies for actual business purposes,” Neeves added.
Employers are concerned, too, about what employees post online, and many clients provide clear guidelines on what workers may post, according to Neeves.
Trust Is Critical
When employers block social media at work, “it breeds a lot of discontent, and it breeds an environment where you don’t feel trusted,” said Susan Heathfield, a management consultant in Williamston, Mich., and writer of the human resource column for About.com.
Heathfield doesn’t bar employees from posting on Facebook at work, noting that her workers don’t abuse social media. “I know that some employees in some companies do, though,” she added in an interview with SHRM Online.
Ubiquitous texting is a fact of modern work life for younger employees, said Healthfield, who is also an owner of TechSmith Corporation, which has 250 knowledge workers, about 150 of whom are in their early 30s or younger.
“They just communicate completely differently than other employees,” she observed. “They text each other; they text their boss. … They have this immediacy in their communication with the texting, with the company IM [instant messenger]. “It’s OK with me if they use all those methods of communication, but first of all, they have to be professional about it.”
Employees need to find out colleagues’ and supervisors’ communication preferences, such as whether they want to receive text messages at home in the evening, she said.
Heathfield advises managers not to text people outside of work hours or ask their employees to be Facebook friends. She doesn’t believe in setting new policies because one or two people abuse their time at work.
Some Interesting Stats
A recent Gartner survey of global CIOs led that firm to predict that half of businesses will require employees to supply their own devices for work purposes by 2017.
IDC’s March 2013 online survey of more than 7,400 U.S. iPhone and Android smartphone owners ages 18 to 44 found that respondents feel most connected when using texting or messaging applications (49 percent), talking on the phone (43 percent) or posting messages on Facebook (40 percent).
“Given the very personal nature of our mobile phones, how we use them elicits various feelings,” the report states. “A sense of being connected is the strongest sentiment, and it spans demographics and brands, services and applications used.”
Respondents told IDC they spend an average of 132 minutes a day communicating on their smartphones, with 84 percent of the time allotted to texting, e-mail and social media; only 16 percent of their time is spent on phone calls.
Although those surveyed connect with friends, family, colleagues and classmates more on the weekends, they communicate frequently with them via smartphone during the workweek. Contact with co-workers on weekends is “another indication of the ever increasing fluidity of time and schedules given our nearly non-stop connected lifestyles,” the IDC report states.
Overall, the most popular smartphone activities for 18- to 44-year-olds are e-mail, Facebook, Web browsing, viewing maps or directions, playing games, doing general searches or local searches, sharing photos, reading news or sports, and watching TV or video, IDC found.
Among other findings in the report:
Seventy-nine percent of respondents have their phone “on or near them for all but up to two hours of their waking day.” Nearly 60 percent of survey takers use text or messaging apps in the afternoon, representing peak daily activity.
“Over the week, text messaging and using Facebook are the most popular interactions we conduct on our smartphones,” the report notes.
Nearly 80 percent of all smartphone users surveyed reach for the device within 15 minutes of waking.
Seventy percent use Facebook, and of that group, 61percent use it every day. The report also found that 33 percent of mobile Facebook users message their friends privately each day.
“As more mobile devices … are adopted,” the report concludes, “social, sharing and communications will expand even further than where we are today, enabling people to engage, discover and interact in wholly new ways.”
A former reporter for The Associated Press and Dow Jones Newswires, Dinah Wisenberg Brin is a freelance journalist based in Philadelphia, contributing to CNBC.com and Entrepreneur.com.