Phone Zombies Create Problems at Work

‘Phubbing’ occurs anytime individuals are glued to their smartphones, ignoring those around them

Kathy Gurchiek By Kathy Gurchiek August 23, 2018

You're leading a meeting and notice your colleagues, their heads down, responding to those annoying little pings coming from their smartphones. Their attention is absorbed by their devices, answering e-mails, responding to texts, or scrolling through Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram.

You might as well be invisible, because you've just been "phubbed"—phone snubbed.

It has happened to Anne Miner, president and CEO of The Dunvegan Group, a management consulting firm in Woodstock, Ontario, Canada. Being fully present is important to the former radio show host, author and former national director of communications for the International Women's Forum.

Since the introduction of the smartphone, she said, she's observed "an increasing tendency for meeting participants to take phone calls, read and respond to texts [and] e-mail messages, and otherwise interact with their devices."

Seventy percent of U.S. respondents said having your cellphone out during a meeting is inappropriate, but 53 percent do it anyway. And while 80 percent said checking one's phone during a meeting is inappropriate, 50 percent can't resist. That's not surprising. The survey, conducted online July 18 for KDM Engineering, found that 20 percent of people check their phone at work at least once every 20 minutes. 

It can be a problem when your workplace is a public place.

Johnny Welsh, a bartender at 5th Ave. Grille in Frisco, Colo., said he gets phubbed during almost every shift. He's been behind the bar for 26 years, and he's found the last five frustrating in his dealings with the public.

"It takes longer for folks to order food. Sometimes they won't even stop [using their phones] to look up," Welsh said. "I don't see people interacting at the bar like [in] the past. I have witnessed a whole bar full of people not interacting, and each one hypnotized by the digital lure in their hands. … They are like thumb zombies!"

Such intense focus on a smartphone is a form of social exclusion, according to researchers Varoth Chotpitayasunondh and professor Karen M. Douglas at the University of Kent's School of Psychology in Canterbury, England.

"Phubbing can take place anywhere and at anytime as someone reaches for their phone and ignores their conversation partner," they write in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology.

Miner finds it rude and disruptive to everyone at a meeting.

"Sometimes meetings come to a complete halt waiting for the offender to catch up with the conversation or at least pay attention to a question they have been asked," she said.

It extends the meeting and often delays decisions. And the more senior the participants are, the more likely they are to engage in phubbing during meetings, Miner has found.

Her initial strategy to combat this—asking participants to turn off, silence or put their devices away—didn't work. Staffers often furtively checked their devices under the table or in their laps.

The last straw for Miner was when an employee, on his device during an entire meeting, asked the group to delay a decision the rest had agreed upon while he was distracted by his phone.

"Although he was a key player, and the decision would impact his team, his presence had been of absolutely no value," Miner said. "His request for a delay meant everyone's time had been wasted."

She got tough and banned devices during her meetings. Everyone had to start parking them, silenced, in a basket she designated the "mobile parking lot."

"I did not discuss it or seek consensus. I simply brought the basket and imposed the rule for my own meetings."

Employees objected initially, pointing out that their devices would be safe in their pockets or purses. Some took offense. Others said it was akin to parting with their own child.

"I had to be firm, to insist that my meetings would not start until all devices were in the basket.

There was some grumbling, and one individual even complained to a higher authority, who suggested Miner reconsider her decree but did not force her to do so.

Her plan proceeded. Today, staffers no longer have to be reminded to part with their phones before a meeting begins.

Miner wishes everyone would impose this rule.

"We start on time, stick to the agenda, make considered decisions and end on time."

[SHRM members-only sample policy: Electronic Devices—Bring Your Own Device (BYOD)]

Sometimes it's the boss who does the phubbing.

That's the situation at GrabResults, a website-design firm in North Hollywood, Calif., according to project manager Akiva Leyton.

It's not uncommon, Leyton said, for his direct supervisor to interrupt what he's doing to take important calls from clients. Sometimes the boss even takes calls during meetings with clients. "I have seen many clients get confused or even frustrated with his diverted attention," he said.

His boss is aware of how his actions affect clients and employees, Leyton noted, and getting an Apple Watch has escalated the phubbing.

"When it comes to employees, he prioritizes calls with clients as, understandably, the customer comes first. We have adapted to this behavior and often just continue our meetings without him."

Co-workers are philosophical about the phubbing, according to Leyton.

"We understand his obligations to his clients, and we don't generally hold it against him. Don't get me wrong, we love him as a boss! This is just a consequence of running a business the way that he does."

Coaching Phone Snubbers 

Petal Bovell-Proffitt, founder and president of talent management company Disc Bodhi in Brooklyn, N.Y., has started coaching managers on curbing their phubbing.

A manager/employee meeting "is an opportunity to build a connection, discuss performance, get feedback [or be] coached. … [But] phone snubbing impacts employee engagement and morale," she said.

"Employees consistently complain that during their one-on-one discussions with their manager, they feel neglected and that their manager doesn't value their time."

Her coaching entails:

  • Helping managers understand how phone snubbing harms employee morale. Managers who check and respond to e-mail or place their phone where they can see incoming messages—or just hold their phone during a meeting—engage in destructive behavior, she said. It can lead to employee disengagement.
  • Working with managers to create new behaviors for engaging more effectively with employees. "There are simple solutions that they can immediately put in place when meeting one-on-one with their staff" that reinforces to the employee that the manager is giving full attention to that person, Bovell-Proffitt said. 

It's as simple as putting away the phone during the meeting or turning it over to show the employee that the manager is focused—an effective way to slay a phone zombie.


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