Phone use in the workplace: manners matter to all generations

When was the last time you were in a meeting, had a business dinner or simply sat at your desk in an open space office, wondering how humans became enslaved by a small, squared device that rings, beeps or buzzes constantly, turning people into cell phone addicts? Not only is the permanent noise and digital chatter distracting, consequences also include attention deficit disorder for the simple things in life and lack of basic human interaction. Interpersonal skills are top of the list on most job descriptions – yet, the way we use our cell phones in the workplace doesn’t speak for much competence in this area…

From a Generation X perspective…

To Generation X, smartphone usage in the workplace is both a problem and a gift. It’s a gift because we have a 24/7 lifeline to our families, doctors and the urgent matters in our life, no matter where we are. But it’s a problem because some employees have a 24/7 lifeline to their thousands of ‘friends’ on Facebook and Instagram, causing all sorts of distractions. Staying in touch or getting things done is not the same as constant text chatting with no purpose.

One reason cell phone use in the workplace has become a problem for Generation X, is because like open seating, we did not grow up in the corporate world with a cell phone. It’s all new and there aren’t enough boundaries for our structured lives. With this open seating plan, we hear and see it all:  ‘users’ seem to always be distracted, ‘users’ are rarely engaged with each other physically, and while I admire a unique ring tone, save it for the playground.

Even though smartphone use is accelerating, Gen X is not nearly as addicted to their phones as Generation Y or Z, especially in the workplace. Once a Gen Y I tried to meet with, searched 5 things or places on his phone in our 1 minute conversation. Needless to say, he was looking more at his device than me when I was talking to him. While this may have seemed like efficient multi-tasking to him, it felt disrespectful and ignorant to me. Remember, Gen X are the driven warriors, the responsible workers who focus and get things done, and we still want the directed attention we didn’t get as children.

Phones will be our briefcase and our lifeline

Phones will always be in our briefcases, in fact the phone WILL BE our briefcase and our shrinky-dink tribe. And soon Generation Z (also called iGen for a reason) will be entering the workforce. So how does a company manage a tiny device causing so much controversy?  Banning smartphones leads to micro-managing which means ‘work from home’ where no one is watching. Yet free use leads to lower productivity, loud offices and reasons for never having a meeting if a person doesn’t look up. Do I sense a hot mess?

The solution is to craft and implement a realistic policy

Why? Because I hear this all the time from Gen X peers in small and large businesses: ’We have a policy around the use of smartphones and social media at work, but it is barely enforced.’ Here are some suggestions for cell phone usage in the workplace that are simple (i.e. accomplishable), yet can have a powerful and positive impact on your workforce – across all generations:

1.      Phone can be on but should be set on Silent mode at work

2.      Limit private phone use to urgent matters (childcare, medical, emergencies)

3.      When in a business meeting, look and listen and talk (not text)

4.      Phones do not belong on the table (or the ear) at business meals

5.      Look a colleague in the eye when they are talking to you, not your phone

6.      Keep your phone life to yourself; it’s your business who’s texting you

7.      Phones do not have to be part of EVERY conversation

As a Gen X, I would expect a policy like this to be innate, a policy based on common sense. But because smartphone usage is so new and so exciting, maybe employees can’t control themselves. In many cases, phone etiquette parallels a person’s etiquette in general, so not everyone ‘just knows’. With a policy to promote etiquette, we will all learn over time whether by rules, by rewards or by reminders.

This article first appeared at Getting Gen Z.