Cell Phone Use Can Rewire Your Gray Matter - But Can It Be Used for Good?
Smartphones have become an inextricable part of the workplace - and not always for the better. While smartphones can make the mobile office a reality and improve connectivity outside of the workplace, inside the workplace they can become a major distraction, without your employees ever truly realizing it.
Workplace interruptions are estimated to cost U.S. businesses over $585 billion a year and eat up 40-60% of an employee’s productive hours of the day. Though staggering, those numbers can often feel so large that they don’t feel applicable to real life - a reason that smartphone usage in the workplace continues to permeate, despite the increasing studies about its negative impacts on productivity, earnings, and workplace culture.
While finding a solution to the problem of smartphone addiction in the office is critical, understanding the mechanisms of today’s addiction is the first step. Which is to say, a one-size fits all plan of barring smartphones from the work desk and cutting down on email hours outside of the office may not be the most effective route to take. Even if being e-mail accessible isn’t a company necessity, today’s millennials grew up with smartphones in their hand; they may not realize the bounds of their overreliance, having been accustomed to constantly communicating in real time for years. They may not even realize how often they do it: in a recent study, participants estimated reaching for their phones about 35 times a day; the real tally was closer to 85.
Scary statistics and impersonal data can be eye-opening, but even the most invested employee may view herself as the exception to the rule. To cut smartphone usage in a tenable way, reach employees on a personal level: educate them about the many neurological impacts smartphone usage can have on their long-term health without scolding, while offering actionable tweaks to both their behavior and corporate culture that supports putting the smartphone down. The impact can be far stronger than the bottom line - employees who are able to digitally disconnect are more productive, have better work-life balance, and are largely happier than their peers.
According to a 2015 Gallup poll, over 50% of Americans check their cellular phones multiple times an hour, with culprits largely being the millennial generation. Wrestling the smartphone out of an employee’s hand isn’t going to be easy, nor is it going to last long. While it’s safe to assume that a fair amount of that population is aware that smartphone usage can be distracting, the Gallup poll also found that the majority of Americans incorrectly believe that their smartphone usage is less than that of their peers. Simply put, smartphone natives have a problem they can’t even see.
Millennials do, however, care about their mental health and wellness, and as more studies are being done on the cognitive impacts of smartphone usage on the brain, the impacts they have on neuroplasticity - that is, the brain’s ability to change itself for better or worse - are becoming more known. As researchers are now proving, the brain is infinitely adaptable, even as we get older. It’s why we keep seeing studies about the damaging impact that distracted multitasking can have on the brain’s cognitive abilities.
Again, self-reporting can have a significant impact on how employees internalize such studies. If they don’t realize how often they’re being interrupted by smartphone checking, or the turnaround time it takes to fully get back into swing after an interruption, no amount of scare statistics may scalably change their behavior - especially when the majority of the offered solutions to these stats all seem to simply point at “put the phone down” with little room for real world office demands.
Re-Examine the Cost of Interruptions
$585 billion lost to distractions alone is a big number - so big that it can be easy to pass the blame onto the next guy, rather than an individual responsibility to help ameliorate. Instead, help quantify the cost of interruptions on a more personal level.
A University of California, Irvine study found that the average office worker has only 11 minutes between each ensuing interruption, yet it takes a full 25 minutes to return fully to the original task. Which means that on average, interruptions can theoretically keep employees from ever being fully engaged. Encourage employees to spend a week tracking their interruptions and phone checking, judgment free, and compare it to what they estimated their usage to be. For most employees, adding up that amount of tracked time equals a substantial chunk of time that could have been better spent.
A good way to ease into less smartphone usage in the office is by blocking out distraction-free time just to work; no meetings, no drop-by’s, no cell phone usage. Even if just for an hour or two a few times per week is enough to significantly alter the prevalence of distractions in the workplace.
Focus on Individual Brain Benefits
The health benefits of eliminating distractions are particularly compelling on the individual level. Introspective ability has been proven to be positively correlated with the amount of gray matter a person has in their prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain directly involved in an individual’s personality, productivity, and ability to plan ahead. As researchers found, while being distracted didn’t necessarily impede a person from completing two tasks, it did make it difficult for subjects to later think critically about their work. By connecting the benefits of eliminating distractions to tangible proof that undistracted minds possess more gray matter, and are better able to retain memory and ongoing education in the short and long-term, employees have a personal cost for picking up that smartphone multiple times a day.
Neuroscientists are largely in agreement that the best way to increase neuroplasticity in the brain is by mindful meditation - it’s been proven to increase cortical thickness, which improves attention, builds greater gray matter throughout the brain, particularly in the areas that deal with emotional response, learning, and memory, and strengthen white matter, the connective tissues between brain lobes.
But in today’s branded mindfulness age, “successful” meditation can seem an elusive goal. As Stanford professor Kelly McGonigal explains in her book, The Willpower Instinct: How it Works, Why it Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It, the key to making meditation manageable is by simplifying its benefits. Rather than trying to tackle all of meditation’s perceived benefits of stress relief, anger management, focus, and so on, eat the elephant one bite at a time: emphasize meditation as a tool to help brains snap back to work sooner when interrupted or distracted.
If a neuroplastic brain can rebound from distractions more quickly, mindful meditation is what trains it. As McGonigle explains, simply taking five minutes a day and focusing on one’s breath - at first, even by literally repeating “inhale, exhale” to oneself - is the simplest way to dip a toe into meditation. When the mind is noticed wandering away, bring it back to the task at hand. And for those who claim that they can’t clear their mind and must be bad at meditation? They’re actually the ones gaining the most. If the goal of meditation is to help the brain snap back from distraction faster, multiple distractions during a meditation aren’t a failing - they’re just more opportunity to practice.
By demystifying the goals and practice of meditation, the benefits don’t just become more tangible, they become significantly more accessible as well.
Encourage a Smartphone Free Workplace
At some point you will have to state the obvious: smartphones should be stashed for the majority of the workday. But smartphone notifications trigger a dopamine response - it’s science, not just social media, that has us picking that phone up so often throughout the day - which means that combatting their presence can’t just be a game of keepaway. Instead, build a corporate culture where smartphones are intended predominantly for use outside the office.
In addition to practical suggestions, such as asking employees to keep smart phones on silent or do not disturb mode, lead by example to make the physical workplace less smartphone dependent. Banishing cell phones from meetings not only saves time and keeps meetings short, it also eliminates employees feeling the need to take their devices with them everywhere they go, which boosts company interaction and morale.
By migrating smartphones to their intended medium of mobile connectivity, the excuse to have a phone out at all times drops significantly; when paired with the cognitive and wellness benefits of a distraction-free workplace are thusly amplified. Just be sure not to shift a disproportionate amount of work e-mail to outside office hours - something that theoretically is avoidable given all the time employees will be saving.
Use Smartphones Mindfully
Accepting that smartphones are an irrevocable part of the modern workplace is the easiest path to finding a cell phone policy that works for employees, but having flexible practice doesn’t mean you can’t observe best practices. Having managers lead by example in how they utilize e-mail, especially by cutting down on hyper-responsiveness, can have a tremendous impact on both in-office and out of office e-mail usage for all employees.
Time-tracking apps such as Toggl are a good way for workers to monitor their own smartphone usage and identify times and tasks that can be unknowing pitfalls. Recognizing that distractions are inevitable is part of the battle, but given our known inability to accurately estimate our level of distraction, being able to monitor progress is a quantifiable tool that can help even a novice see the growing benefits of continued meditation.
And even meditation can come in the form of a smartphone; meditation apps like Headspace offer simple guided meditations for beginners and experienced practitioners alike, and often offer discounted memberships to large groups and companies.
By taking a personalized approach to the benefits and detriments of smartphone usage, wellness-focused companies can eliminate distractions in a way that makes companies more productive, boosts morale, and reduces employee stress.