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Last modified November 29, 2011 at 10:19 PM

Proliferation and Problems: Workplace Smart Phone Use

Fred Lloyd
In the right circumstances, smart phones can be powerful, effective tools. In the wrong circumstances, they can actually produce the opposite affect than what was intended.

Innovative workplace technologies can be the lifeblood of business. Emerging technologies have helped transform entire segments of industry with their sweeping changes. The internet was entirely unknown to most businesses 20 years ago and now it is integral to success. Companies no longer use the internet as merely a place to post “billboards”. Companies increasingly see the internet as a resource to be exploited for maximum gain. This requires them to continue to seek out new ways to export their ideas.

Cell phones and smart phones are becoming more and more important to businesses. These growing technologies represent avenues for new revenue growth and potential cost savings for companies.

To understand where technology is possibly heading, we must first examine the roots from which it has developed. Pei Zheng in his 2006 book “Smart Phone and Next-Generation Mobile Computing” states that the cell phone was invented by Dr. Martin Cooper at Motorola labs. Dr. Cooper made the first cell phone call on April 13, 1978. Since then, cell phones have become the most prolific communication device in the United States and the world. When they were first introduced, cell phones were bulky and had limited range. They were often referred to as “bricks” because of their shape and unwieldy size. However, the potential for cell phones was clear. The idea of being un-tethered from a landline was appealing to both businesses and personal users alike. A period of intense competition drove the emergence of cell phones for public use. As these phones became more readily available, they also advanced technologically. The bulky size disappeared; replaced by compact phones that could easily slip into pockets or purses. The battery life increased dramatically. The cell phone network itself grew quickly in order to meet a surge in demand.

Cell phones were used to make voice calls to people via mobile handsets that connected via a series of towers. These towers allow users to talk to other users on wireless devices or the more traditional handheld devices (Settles, 2002). Cellular technology was not originally built to carry data and as a result, their original data speed was very slow. However, with each new technological advance, data speed has improved. Recently Verizon and Sprint have begun rolling out their 4G wireless networks, which should allow between 1 and 50 megabits per second.

The next generation of phones that followed basic cellular phones was that of smart phones. Smart phones were developed by a convergence of cell phone manufacturers during the late 1990s as a result of the desire to bring telephones and personal digital assistants (PDAs) into one device.  Prior to the smart phone, most cell phones used monochrome displays that were unable to display websites except as text.

Smart phones started with primitive offerings from companies such as Palm, Symbian and Microsoft Windows Mobile (Zheng 2006). However, the market was very niche, with business users making up the majority. This changed in April of 2007. Apple, Inc released the iphone 1 on April 13th, 2007. Before it was released, Apple unleashed a savvy marketing campaign that targeted more than the typical Palm businessman. It emphasized how the device was simple to use and accessible to all people. The media backlash was intense. Bloggers and media sources blasted the iphone as over hyped and predicted that it wouldn’t have a lasting impact on the burgeoning smart phone market. Of course, the iphone went on to capture almost 20% of the smart phone market share within a year (Wireless Week, 2008).

Smart Phone Market Share, 2008

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Fig 1. Iphone captures 19.5% of smart phone market share.

The New York Times went on to write an article about the iphone that categorically showed the hype had some validity but that the iphone was revolutionary (New York Times, 2007). In this article, the New York Times declares that “As it turns out, much of the hype and some of the criticisms are justified. The iphone is revolutionary; it’s flawed. It’s substance; it’s style. It does things no phone has ever done before; it lacks features found even on the most basic phones.”

Of course, smart phones have moved into the mainstream of modern America. This can partially be contributed to the proliferation of access to broad band internet. In the beginning, data was transferred via cellular towers that, as previously mentioned, were not originally intended for this task. Cellular companies struggled to upgrade existing systems and install new systems. These new systems allowed for the creation of faster networks, culminating (for now) in what is now known as 3G.

3G networks allow users to access the internet with speeds up to 2MB per second (Settles, 2002) The proliferation of 3G, coupled with the iphone release, changed the face of mobile communication. The ability to “have the internet in your pocket” has changed the way Americans act on a day-to-day basis. Google and other similar search engines have put a vast amount of information literally at our fingertips. Arguably no other period of human existence has had such a freedom of information. Smart phones allow us to answer questions, seek medical advice, balance our checking accounts, shop online, schedule appointments, register for classes and a multitude of other activities. Of course, these are all merely personal uses. The proliferation of smart phones has had a long term affect on businesses as well.

In similar fashion to what occurred with the rise in personal computers, smart phones have become a means for businesses to expand their reach (Mitchner, Engineering and Technology). Many employees now carry more than one cell phone. One phone is typically their personal phone used to converse with family and friends. The second phone is used for work related business. This type of connectivity allows for companies to communicate immediate changes with increased rapidity. It also allows for employees to seek help in times of need or to relay breaking news to the appropriate party.

At first glance, this connectivity appears to be a good thing. However, like many new technologies, the emergence of smart phones has had negative effects as well. These include privacy concerns, cell phone addiction, work/ life spillover, and increased security concerns.

Privacy Concerns

Americans, perhaps more than any other society in the world, have an expectation of privacy in their day-to-day lives. This expectation leads them to think that certain conditions exist when, in fact, they do not. A business that provides a phone to an employee will rightfully consider this phone to be their property. But the user, the employee, might have an expectation of a right to privacy on any non-work calls made on that telephone. For an answer to this kind of question you have to look at the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA). This piece of legislation was passed in 1986, well before the spread of smart phones but has had a major impact on the use of modern technology

The ECPA has a “provider exception.” This exception states that if an employer owns the telephone, email or internet service and is providing it to the employee, the employee is not protected from privacy claims (Nord, E- Monitoring in the Workplace). This might seem logical to most people when they use a landline at work but they might not immediately realize the situation  is the same on a company provided smart phone. Because of the ECPA, employees need to be aware that their phone calls could be examined to ensure the phone is being used for work purposes only. If any unusual or unprofessional calls are being made, they could be grounds for dismissal. An added element with smart phones is the use of data. Because the internet is being provided by the company, any and all searches and browsing are equally lacking in privacy protection. Similar to monitoring at a company desktop, smart phone browsing can be policed.

Cell Phone Addiction

Because companies find benefit from having their employees available at any time, they provide cell phones or smart phones free of cost. This continues to feed an already growing number of people that are using cell phones. The following graph illustrates this growth.

US Cell Phone Usage 1987-2008

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Fig. 2 Growth of cell phones continues to increase in the United States. Graph courtesy of madmikesamerica.com

This growth is expected to continue over the next few years as smart phone usage also increases and people increasingly turn away from traditional land lines. This cell phone availability has created an environment where addiction to mobile devices is becoming more common. Internet addiction has been covered in The New York Times, The New England Journal of Medicine and Psychology today. A subset of that addiction, cell phone addiction, has become more pervasive as these devices not only become more common but also are also increasingly able to perform an increased number of tasks.

 Smart phones allow individuals to answer phone calls, listen to music, email, search the internet and more. Companies that provide these phones have the expectation that they will be used primarily for work related reasons. But this expectation is often not reality. Even in situations where employees work on site, many will use company provided internet for personal reasons. Many companies have strict regulations concerning when and where employees may access non-work related websites. Smart phones produce an entirely different set of problems. Employees will use those phones for personal reasons. Many of them will have little to no understanding of the ECPA and fail to comprehend their lack of privacy. Others will justify why they are using the phone for personal use.

Perhaps the biggest contributing factor to possible cell phone addiction by employees using work provided smart phones is the constant phone checking. Anywhere you go it is easy to see people constantly accessing their smart phones. People are looking at email in the grocery store checkout line, texting co-workers while they drive (Often with negative results.) or accessing company websites during lunch. These types of actions are habit forming to the extent that some people will not even realize that they are doing them. They become second nature. If you have ever been on an elevator or inside a building that doesn’t have phone reception and then exited, you have probably observed a crowd of people pulling out their phones and flipping them open, needing to know if anyone has called or email during their brief period of non-connectivity.

Personal experience tells me that people become anxious when they are no longer able to access the internet or telephone after growing used to an “always on” environment. This anxiety is compounded when it stems from a work related telephone. The idea that the employee might have missed an important email or call can prove very troubling. This anxiety is heightened in a time of economic upheaval when employment is difficult find. This anxiety produces and effect not unlike a nervous tick. The user checks for an email, text or call; waits for a few minutes and then repeats the process all over again. This type of behavior can cause problems with family life.

Work/ Life Spillover

Another area where smart phones have had a negative impact is work/ life spillover. Before modern technology created the “always on environment”, traditional employment required employees to arrive at work at a specific time. The employee then conducted their work on-site, unless they were a salesman or other similar positions and returned home after the work day concluded. During this time there were no cell phones, only the traditional landline. If your employer wanted to contact you, they could only reach you at home. If you happened to be out of the house, they might leave a message but there was no guarantee that you would return the call.

The situation is entirely different today. Companies are able to invade their employees’ lives via numerous methods, including email, texts, company phones and company website. Employees are often instructed to access company email and voicemail a minimum number of times per day. Noelle Chesley wrote in the December 2005 Journal of Marriage and Family “Structural equation models indicate that cell phone use over time (but not computer use) is associated with increases in negative forms of spillover (positive spillover is not significant) and is linked to increased distress and lower family satisfaction.”

This spillover into family life creates an environment of dissatisfaction, adding an additional layer of difficulty to families already stressed by current economic conditions. However, the employee has little alternative but to remain available into what would otherwise have been family time. The unspoken threat of replacement hovers over many people during these times of increased unemployment.

The motivation for this spillover stems from the company’s desire for profitability. Unless the company happens to be a non-profit organization, the goal is to maximize profits. Large companies are increasingly thinking of employees as important assets. A quick internet search will reveal an endless number of articles written on blogs, news websites and financial portals that emphasize how important these employee assets are. In the past, people were not thought of in these terms. What is now an asset was previously considered an important person. Perhaps this is merely a rebranding of an old idea but perhaps it represents a further slide to dehumanizing employees.

The desire to utilize assets as much as possible, coupled with the technology that makes instant contact possible via smart phones, results in situations where spillover occurs. This spillover potentially decreases employee satisfaction, actually reduces productivity, and potentially leads to increased turnover. In effect, the company creates an environment in which the employee knows he will be working more than the normal 40 hours due to after-hours contact. As a result, he invests less energy into daily work to “make up for it.”

Security Concerns

Recently Apple lost a prototype of their since released iphone version 4. This happened because the person responsible for the phone left it at a bar. This is a typical situation that occurs thousands of times a day in thousands of locations all across the United States. However, this example highlights one of the biggest problems with companies providing smart phones to their employees. Security is an important part of any business. Whether it is protecting financial documents, guarding trade secrets, maintaining client confidentiality or keeping prototypes secure, security is paramount.

Robert Strohmeyer illustrates another example in his May of 2010 article appearing in PC World. In his example he is traveling and loses his phone at the Las Vegas International airport. Strohmeyer goes on to talk about how his cell phone wasn’t password protected and would have allowed the user to access a number of sensitive programs.

This kind of scenario is even more dangerous if it was a company smart phone that allowed access to the types of previously mentioned information. Companies place a large measure of trust and risk with each employee that has a smart phone. Even if the employee merely has access to previous texts, there could be information that could be harmful to the company.

Another area of security concern is data interception. When cellular telephone usage was in its infancy, the signal was not encrypted at all (Zheng 2006). Of course, modern networks are heavily encrypted and are considered secure. But the possibility exists for advanced interceptions techniques that will lead to the loss of important data. Texts could be intercepted, decoded and then used against the company. Similarly, it is not impossible to imagine a scenario where a hacker accesses an employee’s smart phone, uses it to gain access to important company information via a secure web-login on the phone’s browser and escapes with the data. In this instance, each smart phone that the company gives to a new employee represents a possible security leak.

Companies spend an unknown millions of dollars keeping secure websites secure. But numerous news stories exist concerning identity theft or the loss of a mass amount of social security numbers from previously secure servers. As long as there is data that is worth something to someone, people will be attempting to steal it.

Solutions

I have briefly covered a small number of the negative aspects of company issued smart phones. There are, undoubtedly, many others that have not been mentioned here. However, given these problems, what is a suitable solution that will satisfy both employers and employees?

My personal belief is that employers have intruded upon employees’ personal lives to an unbelievable extent. Employees are expected to sacrifice their personal lives in order to benefit the company. This situation must be reversed before it has gone past the point of no return. Sadly, this may already have occurred.

However, if the situation is recoverable, the follow agenda must be accomplished:

·         Laws must be enacted that prohibit employers from contacting employees beyond regular work hours unless otherwise agreed.

·         Companies should be prohibited from requiring employees to use company cell phones.

·         Employees should be evaluated regularly to determine if they suffer from cell phone addiction.

The intrusion of governmental agencies upon the business world is not always the best way to resolve problems. However, in this situation, employees need an advocate of significant stature who can make substantive changes to the status quo that currently exists. The only entity that meets these qualifications is the federal government. Currently the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) is the primary source of protection for employees. However, that piece of legislation is primarily concerned with pay (US Department of Labor).

Introducing a new piece of legislation that protects employees personal lives would be an excellent step toward reducing employee abuse. It would also have the benefit of decreasing work/ life spillover dramatically and as a result increase family satisfaction.

Companies should not require employees to utilize company cell phones. They should be allowed to utilize their own cell phone if they have one. This will strengthen their privacy protection and allow the employee to further control the communication.

Finally, employees should be regularly tested to determine if they are suffering from cell phone addiction. This condition is serious and has negative effects. Companies should be required to treat any employee that is found to be suffering from cell phone addiction.

 

Conclusion

Technology continues to advance and companies continue to seek ways to use these emerging technologies to their advantage. However, the rights and conditions of the employee should be carefully considered and monitored as new technologies are implemented. Companies cannot continue to view employees as mere assets to be exploited. Smart phones are only one means that companies use to maximize their efficiency. In the right circumstances, smart phones can be powerful, effective tools. In the wrong circumstances, they can actually produce the opposite affect than what was intended.

Innovative technology can be the lifeblood of business. These new technologies represent the necessary change for businesses to grow and create new markets. This creation has contributed to the bettering of society. The note of caution in this paper is to remind businesses to constantly seek the balance between using employees as assets and treating them like valuable people.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bibliography

1) Chesley, Noelle. Journal of Marriage & Family. Dec 2005, Vol. 67 Issue 5, p1237-1248.

2) Nord, Daryl. “E-Monitoring in the Workplace: Privacy, Legislation, And Surveillance Software.” Communications of the ACM, August 2006, Vol 49 No 8.

3) Pogue, David. “The iPhone Matches Most of Its Hype.” New York Times, Jun 27, 2007.

4) Settles, Craig. Wireless, Inc. New York: Amacom, 2002.

5) Strohmeyer, Robert. “LOST!” PC World May 2010.

 6) Vos, Ingrid. The Essential Guide to Mobile Business. New Jersey: Prentice Hall PTR, 2002.

7) Zheng, Pei. Smart Phone and Next Generation Mobile Computing.New York: Morgan Kaufman, 2006.

8) http://www.dol.gov/compliance/laws/comp-flsa.htm

Fred Lloyd
Last modified November 29, 2011 at 10:19 PM

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