SMITH BRAIN TRUST – In the halls of GM’s headquarters, amid the usual trappings of the corporate office, there’s one thing notably absent. No one walking the halls is looking down at a 4-inch screen or carrying on a conversation through tiny speakers.
General Motors has banned its employees from using cellphones while walking around its facilities – not just in factories and warehouses where there might be obvious health and safety risks, but in all buildings. The automaker has said it’s about emphasizing safety everywhere. But the Smith School’s Rosellina Ferraro says the side benefits from the ban could be more wide-ranging.
“I can see this encouraging more interactions – and better interactions – among people,” says Ferraro, associate professor in the marketing department at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.
“When we are focusing on our phones, which we often do, that can discourage conversations and interactions," she says. "GM’s policy could have the additional benefit of creating a friendlier and more engaged environment, one in which people get to know their coworkers a little better.”
At GM, employees don’t check their emails or text messages as they walk toward a conference room or break area. They don’t chat on the phone with their spouses as they leave the office for the day.
When people set aside their phones, they open themselves to the possibility of more organic conversations with colleagues, and those conversations could prove helpful in solving problems or finding innovations, Ferraro says.
Research she conducted in 2012 showed that cellphone use may make users less socially minded, more selfish and more self-focused. Cellphones, the researchers found, reduced users' desire even to connect with others.
It’s a pattern that often feeds upon itself.
Ferraro points to a recent front-page Wall Street Journal article, “Sorry, Pal, I Don’t Want To Talk,” about people who mute their AirPods but continue wearing them just to fend off conversations. It’s understandable, she says, to want to ward off potential distractions when tasks require intense concentration.
But overuse of the ploy, she warns, can prove detrimental to collaboration and can lead to those selfish leanings.
Some companies have taken measures to limit the use of cellphones in corporate offices, more frequently driven by productivity worries, rather than safety ones. At some companies, including restoration company Belfor and advertising agency Brown, Parker & DeMarinis, cellphones aren’t allowed in business meetings, because of the distractions they create.
“There is a lot of research that shows that multitasking doesn’t really work. We aren’t really doing multiple things at once,” Ferraro says. “We are diverting our focus, focusing on multiple things, one after another, but not at the same time.”
Ferraro says GM’s policy makes good sense from a safety standpoint, as well.
There are safety risks, to be sure, when someone walks up or down stairs while looking down at a small screen. With an ear to the phone, an employee could easily miss the sound of someone warning about a potential slip risk. At Apple’s headquarters in Cupertino, Calif., where employees frequently walk from place to place while using their iPhones, several people this year were injured after walking into glass walls.
Ferraro says by banning employees from using a cellphone while walking to meetings, to the washrooms or to other areas of the corporate building, GM is doing its employees a favor. Consider it a mini-vacation or a mini-mindfulness moment, she advises.
“You can devote that time to interacting or noticing things. And you can do more thinking. It opens you up to think about your work, maybe a possible solution to a problem. And you can reclaim that time from a distraction that might not even be that important – a posting on social media or a news alert or whatever it might be,” she says.
And those moments may help make you become less selfish and less self-focused, she says, citing her research.
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