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  • Phyllis Harbinger

Cell Phone Etiquette - Creating a workplace policy that promotes balance


We all are guilty of being distracted by this irreplaceable object that has permeated our existence. What started out as a way to communicate verbally when not tethered to a land line has become a device that controls and assists us in so many aspects of our lives. From checking email to taking a call, to tracking our steps and editing our CAD drawings, the smart phone is here to stay.


On the downside, our devices are driving many of us to distraction—and taking a toll on productivity in the workplace. Approximately 20 percent of firms have reported that employees are less productive than they were even five years ago, only giving total attention to their work for less than five hours a day. Between the various tones and dings for incoming messages, alerts, reminders and appointments, these devices hijack your attention and are negative disruptors in the workplace, making it harder to concentrate on the task at hand and do good quality work.


Are you aware that many employees are taking more restroom breaks than ever so that they can check their phones? New studies have determined that the smart phone can become addictive and heaven forbid you are without yours for more than an hour----how many of you can relate to this? They are habit-forming, the glow and all of the widgets and apps they hold are seductive. Business owners must dutifully address that they are not going away any time soon and it is your right to intervene when employees are sidetracked by the use of their devices. This is somewhat akin to how you might take action with workers who consistently call in sick or are perpetually late. I would like to suggest a few tips on how you can take control and set up an office protocol regarding cell phone use in the workplace.

While there are family emergencies and other random events where it is imperative that an employee take a call, during office hours – work should be paramount and come first. It is unrealistic to ban cell phone use in the workplace. In fact, it can be quite handy when in a meeting to look something up on a google search or find a photo or reference that supports the conversation.


I suggest that creating boundaries around cell phone use would be a great first step into managing this issue.


I would start by setting standards where cell phone use is not permitted:

- If we are in a meeting with our team or clients

- During employee training

- At conferences – set the expectation that breaks will be given and that is when cell phone use is acceptable. I believe that looking at texts during a session also distracts you from the learning exchange.


You might also add a clause that discusses hands free cell phone use while driving- if an employee drives to see clients or goes to job site meetings with contractors, showroom visits, etc. I personally set up carplay and it has been a lifesaver. I can be handsfree and give voice commands to Siri to call someone for me, send a text message, create a reminder, and add a meeting to my calendar, and she even reads my emails and texts to me. For me, this has been a game changer, allowing me to be productive and stay safe while driving.


Your smart phone boundaries should also outline acceptable frameworks during the workday for cellphone use. For example, allow cellphone use during breaks and lunch time. I would also suggest discussing the frequency and length of calls at the workplace.

While I am in love with my new wireless Airpods, I am not certain that they are helpful for employees during work hours. You have no idea if they are listening to music that helps them work more effectively or a podcast which will distract them from their workflow.


If you work in an open office culture, discuss where to store personal devices. Keeping phones out of sight, such as in a desk drawer, in a purse or pocket is a great way to keep the distraction at bay.


Create the Cell Phone Etiquette Policy that works for your Office Culture. For me, there is nothing more distracting then hearing the dings AND the vibrating tones. It makes it so hard for me to concentrate. Also, other people’s conversations are a huge distraction. I have set the following parameters in both our office culture and in my classroom. Believe me, we all somehow got through a 3-4 hour class/conference or meeting without getting a text, email or call before the advent of the cellphone! I encourage my students and my team to give family members an emergency land line contact so that they can be reached while their phones are off.


In the event of a predicted emergency or a sick family member – set the standard for cell phones to vibrate and ringtones to be set to silent.

Ask for employees to speak quietly

Calls should be brief

Personal calls should be taken in private. Leave the workspace.

Use texting as a quick and quiet alternative to talking on the phone but be discreet about this

Do not use cell phone cameras (to protect everyone’s privacy) in the office without prior permissions


At the workplace, it is critical that you provide your team and other staff members with a written policy. You want to be sure that your employees have a road map to follow and that your language is clear, and also outline the consequences if the employee does not adhere to the terms of the policy. There can and should be consequences or all of this will be for naught. Perhaps the first offense comes with a verbal and written warning followed by a cell phone ban if the activity is perpetuated. Once enforced, this language should be part of your Operations Manual as well so an employee has one place to go for all operating procedures and other information regarding their employment.

Like we do with our clients, I would set a mandatory expectation that all employees review and sign the Cell Phone etiquette policy, indicating that they understand and accepts the terms and consequences.


Most importantly, as the boss – you must set the example. If you persist in these poor habits, you cannot expect your staff to comply. They will never take the policy seriously and you could also cause discontent amongst your staff. Be a role model and give people a reason to follow your lead!