Using smartphones off the job is (not) clever

We can’t imagine our lives without smartphones anymore – neither in working context nor in leisure time. While both are getting harder to separate the question about the effects of using the smartphone professionally off the job raises. Is the impact rather positive or negative?

Most of us hardly ever switch off their smartphones, don‘t take a step without making sure it accompanies us. Whilst some are praising the efficiency enabled through mobile Internet and compatibility of areas of life which are usually apart, some are worried about negative effects of a potentially proliferating “digital dementia” (e.g. Spitzer (2012)). This debate is highly relevant as more and more employees are getting equipped with smartphones by their employers. As a result the decision about using the smartphone in everyday life is not a private one any more.

A concern often heard is that the (implicit or explicit) expectations of constant availability and replying immediately lead to blurring boundaries among work and private life and thereby to increased stress on the employees’ side. The term for this phenomenon is work home interference (WHI). This refers to the negative effects of mixing up both contexts, particularly the associated role conflict. Studies have shown that increased scores of WHI accompany with increased lack of sleep as well as a higher risk to suffer from burn out (e.g. Bakker & Geurts (2004)). Scientists from the Department of Work and Organizational Psychology in Rotterdam have investigated the relation and figured out that users who use their smartphones heavily after a working day indeed show a significantly increased score of WHI (Derks et al., 2015). On the other hand side three relevant moderating influential factors could be shown: the direct supervisor’s expectations concerning the availability of his employees, the behavior by colleagues as well as the employee’s work engagement.

The supervisor’s expectations are highly relevant

In case the employees have the assumption that their supervisor is expecting them to be available and process work tasks after a working day their WHI score is significantly increased compared to other employees who spend the same amount of time with working tasks but did not have that assumption. The same effect was shown for the social norm characterized by their colleagues.

Surprisingly the higher work engagement leads to a significantly decreased relation between the WHI scores and use of smartphones. Obviously the explanation is that people who identify themselves highly with their work and like to engage perceive working tasks after official working hours less disturbing. As a result they experience less role conflicts.

Another explanation can be derived from interference research. `Interference’ means the overlap of one task with another one which leads to a disturbance while processing the current task. If the first task couldn’t get completed and one is still mentally occupied with it during one already passes over to the next on, interference can be found. The performance of the current challenge is decreased by that disruption.

This can also happen in case one working task isn’t completed yet, but one likes to focus on a current challenge in private life. The working task that is not yet completed is responsible for the inability to focus on whatever is happening and challenging one currently. Employees who show a high work engagement are more likely to complete working tasks than the ones with a lower work engagement (Halbesleben & Wheeler, 2008). Obviously the assumption is that these employees use their smartphones more likely to complete outstanding tasks in order to better unwind after work.

Saving information is helpful

This assumption is supported by Storm and Stones’ research (2015) which shows the positive effects on memory performance of new information in case individuals were given the opportunity to save prior information on a computer or smartphone. Through saving information beforehand tasks are considered to be `completed´, they don’t have to be kept actively in memory and there is capacity for new tasks to think about.

This also applies to all possible information we don’t keep in mind because of the constant availability of smartphones which is why we could save it or look it up. In practice this means on the one hand side that hoping to increase employees’ performance by providing business smartphones can easily turn out to be the opposite. At the same time using smartphones for work relevant tasks off the job in principle doesn’t seem to be the issue. It is rather the given impression of a social norm of being available at work. It’s recommendable to give clear expectations concerning the availability besides the official working hours as well as a limitation of the expectations to really urgent matters. Using the smartphone specifically to finish outstanding tasks or to save information a positive effect through reduction of possible interference can be achieved.