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How to Use a Cell Phone at Work

If you want to keep your co-workers happy, you should resist the temptation to look at your mobile during meetings.

Bottom LineCell phones have become ingrained in modern life. But many professionals still find it inconsiderate when colleagues use them during business meetings—especially formal gatherings.

You’re in the middle of an important meeting, with crucial issues to discuss and tough decisions to make. Suddenly, one of your colleagues pulls out a cell phone and studies the screen. How do you react? He could be looking at an important email, one highly relevant to the meeting; on the other hand, he could be surreptitiously checking the score of a big game or reading a friend’s text. Cell phones are ubiquitous in modern society and offer an ever-increasing range of services, raising the question: What’s the proper protocol for their use in the workplace?

For many people, cell phones have become an essential part of doing business. Indeed, one 2007 study established that even then marketers and sales representatives were using their mobile devices to reach an unprecedented number of clients and potential customers—not only increasing their individual performance and productivity, but also boosting their firms’ responsiveness and profit margins.

However, research published in 2005 showed that about 60 percent of employees already said they got routinely stressed at work because of their colleagues’ rudeness—and some pinpointed the impersonal nature of cell phones as either a prime cause or a symptom of this underlying incivility. When gazing into a screen supplants face-to-face communication, employees can feel detached and isolated from their co-workers.

Even today, despite the proliferation of cell phones, researchers have yet to examine how employees feel during the all-too-common moment when their colleagues’ phones buzz and they bow their heads, work their thumbs, and become momentarily distracted from the proceedings. But a new study based on feedback from a varied workforce has developed a code of conduct to inform employees and managers about the types of mobile phone use that most irk their associates, whether it’s in the conference room or around the water cooler.

To start, the authors surveyed more than 200 employees—from executives to warehouse workers, ages 30 to 65-plus—at an East Coast beverage distributor. The employees answered open-ended questions about cell phone use in their workplace, and provided examples of specific behavior they’d witnessed.

In the study’s second phase, the authors surveyed 350 employees from throughout the United States, asking them to rank the appropriateness of eight types of cell phone use in both formal meetings and informal gatherings, such as an offsite lunch. These cell phone actions ranged from the relatively innocuous, such as checking the time, to the more obviously disruptive, such as stepping away to take a call.

The researchers found that even though cell phones have become indispensable to modern life, professionals overwhelmingly resent it when their co-workers use them during meetings.  More than 87 percent of respondents said they thought it was inappropriate for colleagues to place or answer a call during a formal meeting, 84 percent said the same of writing texts or emails, and more than three-quarters frowned on checking email or browsing online. These numbers fell slightly for informal meetings, but still, about two-thirds of those surveyed considered sending texts, answering a call, or surfing the Internet to be particularly out of line.

Professionals overwhelmingly resent it when their co-workers use cell phones during meetings.

Age, unsurprisingly, skews the results. A majority of employees between 21 and 30 said they had no problem with people checking texts or email during formal gatherings, and they were more than three times as likely as their colleagues older than 40 to view this behavior as acceptable. The divide widens even further in informal settings, indicating significant generational differences about cell phone use, especially at offsite events or working lunches.

Gender also plays a major role. Women are much less tolerant of mobile phone use, particularly at informal get-togethers. Men were nearly twice as lenient as their female counterparts when colleagues checked and sent texts and answered their phone, seemingly indicating that female professionals have higher standards of civility when interacting informally with co-workers.

The study also holds lessons for businesspeople traveling to or working in certain regions of the country. Professionals in the Western part of the United States were the least accepting of colleagues who whipped out their gadgets in formal meetings, whereas those in the Southwest held the greatest disregard for mobile phone use during more casual occasions. The authors posit that the Southwest may place a higher emphasis on hospitality and manners than other regions, but as for the West Coast, the researchers were at a loss for an explanation—perhaps Hollywood moguls and Silicon Valley visionaries have a particular sensitivity to keeping their formal meetings on track.

Finally, status also has an effect on perceptions. Employees expressed far more displeasure when their manager broke from a meeting to use his or her cell phone than when their co-workers did, perhaps perceiving the manager’s behavior as dismissive. In turn, professionals who earned more money looked down on their subordinates’ cell phone use. The balance of power clearly plays a crucial role in perceptions of appropriate mobile phone use.

The results also hint at a larger issue. As a 2012 study showed, managers have in recent years placed a higher value on hiring employees who display courtesy—loosely defined as a blend of good manners, social etiquette, and respectfulness—than the historically sought-after “soft” skills such as a positive attitude, professionalism, and work ethic. In the coming years, one of the best and most fundamental ways for employees to demonstrate courteousness in the workplace may be balancing the use of their smartphones with old-fashioned interpersonal dynamics. Paying attention to the demographic differences underlined in this study should also enable business communication instructors to help professionals understand how age, gender, location, and job title could affect others’ perceptions of mobile phone use at work. 

Source: Perceptions of Civility for Mobile Phone Use in Formal and Informal Meetings, by Melvin C. Washington (Howard University), Ephraim A. Okoro (Howard University), and Peter W. Cardon (University of Southern California), Business and Professional Communication Quarterly, Mar. 2014, vol. 77, no. 1

Matt Palmquist

Matt Palmquist is a freelance business journalist based in Oakland, Calif.

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