Are smartphones causing a loss of productivity?

A recent article on the Bank of England blog written by Dan Nixon caught my attention as it is something that I have long been concerned about – that is the amount of time we spend on our phones / devices and its impact on people’s productivity in the workplace.

Smartphone use and the amount of notifications that we get is enormous. Research in 2015 found that on average we check our 150 times a day – roughly 6½ mins – and spend 2½ hours each day on the phone, spread across 76 sessions. From this the ‘attention economy’ emerges as a scarce and valuable resource and is seen as one of the greatest problems of our time – American philosopher William James noted, our life experience ultimately amounts to whatever we had paid attention to.

The attention economy and the workplace.

The graph below makes for interesting interpretation – productivity growth has been very weak whilst shipments on smartphones has increase by 10 fold. You would expect that the output of a worker would depend on his/her ability to focus and be able to pay attention to the task in hand. However research into observing inner states (attention) and mapping those outcomes with attention (productivity) is fraught with difficulty.

Cyberslacking – The US Chamber of Commerce Foundation finds that people typically spend one hour of their workday on social media – rising to 1.8 hours for millennials. Another survey, meanwhile, found that traffic to shopping sites surged between 2pm to 6pm on weekday afternoons. An influx of emails and phone calls, for example, is estimated to reduce workers’ IQ by 10 points – equivalent to losing a night’s sleep.

Frequent distractions – might lead to a persistently lower capacity to work, over and above the direct effects. What is the argument for this being the case?

1. There’s habit formation – what we do is designed by smartphone apps which make us be as addictive as possible – to ‘hijack the mind’, as Tristan Harris puts it. The psychological mechanism at play here – “intermittent variable rewards” – is the same as the one that gets people hooked on slot machines.

2. The more choice of notifications we have the more time we will spend scanning them looking for instant gratification. Cal Newport goes so far as saying that media like email, far from enhancing our productivity, serve to ultimately deskill the labour force.

Algorithms and attention
Ultimately what we look at is determined by algorithms – so the more technology the less we make the decisions ourselves and our suggested we buy certain goods or services because of out previous behaviours. There has been a lot of talk about artificial intelligence and machines that will be capable of an increasingly wide set of tasks. But most agree on the need to cultivate our distinctively human skills in order to differentiate ourselves from machines. And the human ability to empathise – central to the work of social workers, performers and nurses, among others

But is technology all bad?

IT does help business for the following reasons:

  • Speeds up communication
  • Allows documents to be shared remotely
  • Easier to find information own the Internet.

From the above productivity surged in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s as email, databases and the Internet have had a significant effect on the productivity of business processes.

Is the cause of weak productivity distraction?

Distraction is not the whole story with regard to weak productivity. Industries such as manufacturing and construction have had disappointing productivity rates but this can hardly be due to workers being on their smartphones. As pointed out by The Economist ‘Free Exchange’ productivity is also a consequence of the movement of workers from industries with relatively high rates of growth to more stagnant ones. For instance in the US productivity half of total employment growth since 2000 has been in low productivity areas such as education and health care.

Final thought

According to Dan Nixon constant notifications results in workers becoming less empathetic which is a serious side-effect in an economy where human connections with customers are cast as a defense against automation. Distraction also appears to reduce happiness which ultimately impact on worker productivity. Must end this post now – better check my email accounts, twitter, Facebook and Linkedin.

 

Sources: 

Dan Nixon – Bank Underground blog

Free Exchange – The Economist.

 

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