Smartphones help us stay in touch with colleagues, manage our inbox and complete urgent tasks while mobile, but they actually make us less productive when we are working at our desks, according to a new psychological experiment by the Universities of Würzburg and Nottingham Trent.
The experiment, commissioned by global cybersecurity company Kaspersky Lab, unearthed a correlation between productivity levels and the distance between participants and their smartphone. When their smartphones were taken away, the performance of participants improved by 26 percent.
The experiment tested the behavior of 95 persons between 19 and 56 years of age in laboratories at the universities of Würzburg and Nottingham-Trent in Germany and the United Kingdom, respectively. Researchers asked participants to perform a concentration test under four different circumstances: with their smartphone in their pocket, at their desk, locked in a drawer and removed from the room completely.
The results are significant – test results were lowest when the smartphone was on the desk, but with every additional layer of distance between participants and their smartphones, test performance increased. Overall, test results were 26 percent higher when phones were removed from the room.
Contrary to expectations, the absence of the smartphone didn’t make participants nervous. Anxiety levels were consistent across all experiments. However, in general, women were more anxious than their male counterparts, leading researchers to conclude that anxiety levels at work are not affected by smartphones (or the absence of smartphones), but can be impacted by gender.
“Previous studies have shown that on the one hand, separation from one’s smartphone has negative emotional effects, such as increased anxiety, but, on the other hand, studies have also demonstrated that one’s smartphone may act as an distractor when present. In other words, both the absence and presence of a smartphone could impair concentration,” says Jens Binder from the University of Nottingham Trent.
“In summary, our findings from this study indicate that it is the absence, rather than the presence, of a smartphone that improves concentration,” adds Astrid Carolus from the University of Würzburg.
The results of the experiment correlate with the findings of an earlier survey named “Digital Amnesia at Work.” In this survey, Kaspersky Lab demonstrated that digital devices can have a negative impact on concentration levels. For example, it showed that typing notes into digital devices during meetings lowers the level of understanding of what is actually happening in the meeting.
While banning digital devices from the workplace is not really an option, these findings give businesses an insight on how to improve their productivity.
“Instead of expecting permanent access to their smartphones, employee productivity might be boosted if they have dedicated ‘smartphone-free’ time,” says Sylvia Ng, general manager at Kaspersky Lab Southeast Asia. “One way of doing this is to enforce ‘meeting rules’ – such as no phones, and no computers – in the normal work environment.”