Money Work Busting the smartphone productivity myth
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Busting the smartphone productivity myth

Smartphones are creeping into every part of our lives
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If you’re reading this on a smartphone, you may have a problem. And if you have a large vodka in your other hand, you may have two problems.

Good thing, then, that it’s February – the shortest month of the year, and the month many people choose to forgo their favourite addictions as part of the FebFast charity fundraiser.

But what about the smartphone thing? Is that an addiction too?

A lot has been written on the subject, because in the eight years since the first iPhone became available in Australia, smartphones have swept the nation and delivered much that is useful, but some outcomes that are harmful.

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That’s why, as I swear off booze for the month of February, I’ve decided to conduct a parallel experiment by swapping my smartphone for an old-fashioned dumb-phone – one that’s really only good for texting and phone calls.

On a personal level, I hope to learn more about my phone ‘addiction’. But on a professional level, as economics commentator, I’m hoping for some insights on what the device does for my productivity as an employee.

Photo: AAP
Is your phone use productive? Photo: AAP

It might seem obvious that smartphones make workers more productive – particularly workers who are heavy consumers of information.

On the other hand, the digital revolution of the late 1990s and early 2000s was the period in which smartphone functions were first used – just on other devices.

We had near-ubiquitous mobile telephony and texting, of course, but also email, digital photography, file-sharing, websites, primitive forms of social media such as bulletin boards and chat rooms – it’s just that all except the first two had to be done from a desktop computer, or possibly a slow wireless connection via a laptop.

So being freed from the desk to work anywhere and at any time will surely make us more productive, won’t it?

Are we more productive at all?

There’s no easy answer, but in a speech last year, RBA assistant governor Christopher Kent charted three recent periods of labour productivity growth.

Between 1994 and 2004, the value of what an hour of labour could produce grew an average 2.3 per cent per annum in real terms.

Between 2004 and 2010, that rate slumped to 0.9 per cent, but it then took off again between 2010 and 2015, averaging 2.1 per cent.

Information and communication technology (ICT) is widely accepted as a key factor in the 1994-2004 productivity boom, but the question for the smartphone era is how much of this historic gain was left to fill when the first iPhones started popping up. Were smartphones fixing things that weren’t broken?

In some occupations, mobile communications can actually crimp productivity ­– see, for instance, the Perth business that banned smartphones last year or the Melbourne firm who tried to ban mobile phones way back in 2004.

Photo: AAP
Watch out for phone neurosis. Photo: AAP

In other walks of life – everything from real estate agents, to mobile bankers, and politicians to high-tech farmers – the smartphone is a boon, subject to a couple of caveats.

The health risk

Yes, unhealthy workers are less productive, and some people are developing clearly defined mental health problems from their use of smartphones.

One study being conducted by the City University of Hong Kong (a city with a deep and longstanding relationship with smartphones) warns that heavy smartphone use begets heavy use in others. It notes: “… in the presence of other users’ excessive usage behaviour, individuals are more likely to experience a high level of impulsivity, and use their smartphones compulsively.”

It further warns that once a ‘compulsive’ pattern of behaviour emerges it can develop into “the failure of sensitive self-consciousness and cognitions jeopardising of self-worth sense, both of which engender extreme anxiety”.

Work around the clock

In addition to the health caveat, there’s the problem of what to count as productive work.

Some classes of worker – and journalists fall into this category – can justify a compulsive checking of the smartphone by saying “it’s my job, I have to do it”.

Despite the ‘obvious’ productivity gains that come with the smartphone, then, there’s the less obvious question as to whether you can actually stop working when the day’s done.

That’s what my personal experiment aims to test. I have a desktop computer in my city office. I have a laptop with a mobile connection in my bag, and a desk to set it up on when I get home or when I’m working from Parliament House in Canberra.

When I need to email, share files, read online newspapers, or even do a bit of recreational social media posting, I’ll have to sit in front of a screen.

And when I do, for this month at least, I’ll be stone cold sober.

(A follow-up article will be posted in a month’s time to report on how the experiment went.)

Read more columns by Rob Burgess here

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