Business Report

Is Mobile Computing Good For Productivity?

Yes, of course, but things got out of hand. A quarter of executives admit to having slept with a smart phone.

Consultant Deborah Lovich could be accomplishing the management feat of the mobile era. She’s convinced hundreds of agile-thumbed, on-at-all-hours colleagues to put down their smart phones and stop working or checking e-mail all evening long.

True, the break happens only once a week. But Boston Consulting Group’s “predictable time off” experiment has been a hit. Since it was widely introduced in 2009, more than 900 internal teams have taken part, and the program has become standard practice at most BCG offices in North America and Europe.

Lovich, head of BCG staff in Boston, developed the program with Harvard Business School professor Leslie Perlow, who in studies begun in 2005 found that BCG consultants felt burnout not only because of long hours, but because they could never predict or control when they might have a break from work.

The problem was BlackBerrys and other mobile devices. BCG workers felt pressure to respond to e-mails from a boss or client right away, even when it wasn’t urgent. Responding to one message could set off a chain reaction of e-mails lasting until bedtime.

“Our lives are all about being either on, or on call,” says Perlow, who just published Sleeping with Your Smartphone: How to Break the 24/7 Habit and Change the Way You Work, a book describing her work with BCG and other companies. “That is the fundamental interesting question: What is work these days? How do you define it? Is it work when you’re at the beach thinking you have to check your e-mail?”

In one survey of 1,600 managers from multiple companies, Perlow found that about half checked e-mail continuously while on vacation or just before bedtime. Some didn’t stop there: 26 percent admitted to Perlow that they brought their mobile device into bed with them.

Today, BCG teams that join the predictable time off program meet regularly to work out schedules so that every member can take an official break from e-mail one night each week, not including weekends.

While digital communications and computers have led to huge gains in efficiency, there is evidence that heavy smart-phone use may also interfere with work. Statistics gathered by Perlow, for example, indicate that consultants who had time off felt happier and better at their jobs than those who did not. They were also more efficient. One team she studied decreased its average workweek from 65 to 58 hours while accomplishing essentially the same amount.

Some companies, particularly in Europe, are starting to enforce time away from e-mail during nonwork hours. Volkswagen has programmed its e-mail servers to stop sending messages to many of its German employees after their shifts end. Atos Origin, a French IT company, has plans to end internal company e-mail entirely, claiming it is a waste of time—only 15 of the 100 e-mails its average employee received each day were deemed useful.

It’s not just about time off. In some professions, e-mail and the Web are considered a hazard to clear decision making at work. Some venture capitalists who invest in mobile devices say tablets and phones should be banned from board meetings when important decisions are being made. In hospitals, experts worry, the devices are now the cause of “distracted doctoring.”

The blurring of work and personal life doesn’t only affect highly paid white-collar workers. Union workers, or those with regulated work hours, are also using mobile devices. That is raising new legal questions: Brazil, for example, just passed a law requiring employers to pay overtime when employees use smart phones at home to answer messages from work.

In the United States, Chicago police sergeant Jeffrey Allen is suing because he was not receiving overtime for checking and answering work-related e-mails, calls, and texts at home on his department-issued device. The lawsuit, now awaiting a trial, is among a few emerging cases testing how the U.S. Fair Labor Standards Act applies to smart phones.

“If an employer wants you to wear the ball and chain, and work during your off hours, I think they should have to pay something for that,” says Paul Geiger, Allen’s lawyer and also a counsel for the city’s police union.

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