Mark Zuckerberg has said, “Connectivity is a human right.” While most people would agree with this statement, the question becomes: Does this right extend to employees in the workplace? The topic has been debated for several years now. Some employers believe that, with the added distraction of social media, productivity will decline. Other employers, however, recognize that social media can be valuable for their businesses. Of course, there is also the contention that even without social media, employees will still find ways to procrastinate at work. So, what should employers do? Recent research suggests that allowing employees to take some sort of social media break throughout the workday (or at least not prohibiting cell phones in the workplace) may actually increase employee productivity.
In 2014, a graduate student at Kansas State University performed a study that determined employees who were able to keep their mobile phones during the day and had the chance to use them for micro breaks of one or two minutes to play games and look at social media were more content and productive. The study, through an app that tracked usage, also found that most employees only used their cell phones an average of 22 minutes per workday. Given these findings, employers were encouraged to allow employees access to their cell phones during work.
Recent studies also show that 35% of workers in the United States are millennials, making them the largest generation in the U.S. labor force. Millennials also make up the majority of social media users. Furthermore, the oldest members of the post-millennial generation (those born after 1996) are now of working age. A study from 2017 found that 9 million post-millennials were employed or looking for work, comprising another 5% of the labor force.
Whether or not allowing employees access to their cell phones in certain industries would benefit their employers is debatable. For example, having employees distracted by cell phones while operating heavy machinery in a manufacturing plant that demands complete concentration is unacceptable, as it creates a significant safety risk. Furthermore, some employees have more than enough work to complete, which frequently results in overtime hours. Thus, adding additional work breaks would not be conducive to the workplace. As such, many employers implement rules preventing their employees from bringing cell phones into the workplace at any time during their shifts. Instead, they require employees to leave their phones in the car or at home.
But today, the labor market is tight. Applicants may well be discouraged from accepting a job that denies them complete access to the tool they use for communication, entertainment and information. Given a choice between a job that permits some access to their cell phones and a job that offers none, most individuals are going to select the position that permits phone access. Furthermore, complete bans on mobile phones may lead to inconsistent enforcement of the policy, which could expose employers to future liability for discrimination and/or retaliation claims. Are you really going to discipline the single mother who sneaks her cell phone into the workplace because her babysitter fell through and she had to leave her sick 10-year-old daughter home alone for the day and needs to periodically check in with her throughout the day? If you make an exception for her, will you make exceptions for others? When will you draw the line?
Thus, employers need to be thoughtful about how to address their employees’ desires and need for cell phone use in the workplace, without creating further work distractions that would lead to decreased productivity. A social media break is one possible solution.
The idea of a social media break coincides with that of the traditional smoke break. To break up the long workday, employees would be allowed approximately 10- to 15-minute breaks two or three times a day to disconnect from work and connect online. By controlling how and when employees login to social media, employers can prevent them from secretively logging into their accounts while they are supposed to be working. By recognizing employees’ need for social media (just like some employees’ need to smoke) and providing sanctioned access, an employer can boost employee morale and use social media breaks to improve work productivity.
Of course, this is not to say that you must immediately change your “no-cell-phone” policy. If the rule is being followed and is not otherwise interfering with recruiting and employee morale, there is no obligation to change course. This issue should be addressed on a case-by-case basis and decided by the particular needs of your business.
Megan U’Sellis is a partner in Fisher Phillips’ Louisville office. She can be reached at 502.561.3963 or firstname.lastname@example.org.