Are Mobile Devices Causing a Digital Divide in the Workplace?

By Jason Bramwell

Each day when Bill Walter hops on the elevator in the downtown Baltimore building that houses the offices of CPA and consulting firm Gross, Mendelsohn & Associates (Gross Mendelsohn), a majority of the people riding with him have their smartphones in hand  checking e-mails or surfing the Internet  before arriving at their particular floors.
"Everybody's looking at something on their device. I've been guilty of that myself," Bill Walter, senior network consultant for Gross Mendelsohn, told AccountingWEB.
But what happens when those people exit the elevator to start their workday? Do they continue to use their mobile devices to respond to personal e-mails or texts while at their desk or even during a meeting?
According to a new Robert Half Technology survey of chief information officers (CIOs), mobile gadgets may be causing a digital divide in the workplace. Sixty-four percent of CIOs surveyed said greater use of handheld devices, such as smartphones and tablets, has led to more breaches in workplace etiquette over the past three years. That's up from 51 percent who said the same thing in a similar survey three years ago.
Walter said he's not surprised that CIOs would find this to be a workplace issue, because mobile device use could lessen employee productivity.
"For example, you're in the zone, completing your work. But you get a text message from your significant other or one of your children. Say it takes two minutes for you to get out of that zone to read the text and respond to it. If you get a text every fifteen minutes, how long will it take you to get back in that zone? That can equal hours of time over the course of a day or a week that are nonproductive because you're using an electronic device for personal use instead of business use," he added. 
Harold Gaar, managing partner of Dallas-based accounting and advising firm TravisWolff LLP, says it's difficult to tell if work is suffering at his firm due to mobile device use. As the survey results show, he believes it's more of a workplace etiquette issue.
"It does send a message that you're not engaged, or perhaps it comes across as being a bit rude, that what's on your electronic device is more important than the human beings in the room," Gaar told AccountingWEB. "I think it's incumbent upon all of us to be aware and try not to do it because we could offend people, even if that isn't our intention."
Risk vs. Reward
Walter believes that a digital divide probably does exist at some US companies, but he said Gross Mendelsohn stays on top of the issue so it doesn't become a problem at the firm.

Gross Mendelsohn Mobile Device Policy

Following is the acceptable-use policy for mobile devices at Baltimore-based CPA and consulting firm Gross, Mendelsohn & Associates:

  • Employees must exercise discretion and good judgment in using cell phones and personal digital assistants (PDAs) while in the office or at client sites so as not to disturb others.
  • Excessive personal calls or text messaging during the workday can interfere with employee productivity and can be distracting.
  • Use of cell phones or PDAs isn't permitted in situations where it would disrupt business operations.
  • Cell phones and PDAs should be either turned off or the ringer silenced or set to vibrate while in the office or at client sites.
  • Employees are expected to make personal calls on nonwork time and to ensure that friends and family are aware of the firm's policy.
"We have an acceptable-use policy for mobile devices, and there are pretty strong guidelines for addressing it (see sidebar)," Walter stated. "You may still have people who push the envelope a little too far, but like with everything else, there's an ebb and a flow. If the problem reaches a critical point, it will be addressed, and there will be an adjustment."
TravisWolff doesn't have a firm-wide policy for mobile device use, according to Gaar, because of the benefits the technology provides employees.
"There aren't many of us who would raise our hands to give up these devices, so we certainly acknowledge the value they have. They create a lot of flexibility in terms of how you work," he said. "They can be intrusive, but intrusive in a way that's sometimes good, like getting in touch with a coworker or client right away. Unless something occurred that caused me to rethink that, I don't think we would move toward having a policy that limits the use of mobile devices."
One risk of using mobile devices is it can make it easier to mistakenly offend colleagues when an employee fires off a communication too quickly or uses the wrong medium for the message, John Reed, senior executive director of Robert Half Technology, said in the survey report.
Gaar agrees, saying that people tend to be more personal in e-mail or text conversations instead of using a more professional tone.
"Things you might not say to a person face-to-face you might put in an e-mail or text, which I think can create problems in a work environment," he said. "People tend to be more careful about what they say in an e-mail because it might be monitored by the company. You need to guard against being personal in your communications with your coworkers, particularly with text messages, which aren't monitored. I only text my colleagues in certain situations; otherwise, I try to communicate by phone or by e-mail." 
Four Things to Avoid
Robert Half Technology suggests avoiding these four things to remain in the good graces of your colleagues and manager:
  1. Surfing while talking. Checking your e-mail while someone is trying to have a one-on-one conversation with you is impolite. You'll come off looking distracted and disrespectful.
  2. Leaving a long voice mail. For most communications, you should get to the point quickly. Aim for a voice mail that's no longer than thirty seconds, unless it's a delicate or complicated issue.
  3. Using the wrong form of communication. Can you send a text or instant message (IM) instead of calling? Along the same lines, e-mail is better than IM when an immediate response isn't required. Of course, if you need to have a difficult conversation with someone, picking up the phone or talking in person is best. 
  4. Taking multitasking to the extreme. While it's generally acceptable to bring laptops and smartphones to a meeting, you still must be an active and attentive participant. Rein in the urge to surf the Internet, update your Facebook status, or check your e-mail every minute. Also, set your smartphone to vibrate or turn it off completely.
About the survey:
The Robert Half Technology survey is based on more than 2,300 telephone interviews with CIOs from a random sample of US companies in twenty-three major metropolitan areas with 100 or more employees. 
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