Why private communication from the office upsets colleagues

Private mobile phones are increasingly being discussed in workplaces as a threat to security to health and safety, and a major productivity issue.  While recognised as an important element of workers’ right to being accessible in case of emergencies, the phones are seen as major sources of disruption and misbehaviour. Regulation of use of communication devices for private use is mostly done at a company level, there does not seem to be a general legislation on the issue. Similar discussions can be found in university newsgroups where students complain of the apropriateness of doing IM, texting or other communication activities during lectures.

If we consider that most calls are no longer than 2mns (see data from operators ) and that on average people make 5 calls a day, with a peak between 17h and 21h, we can see that at maximum each employee is “stealing” 6 to 10mns of his worktime for his private communication on the mobile.  There seems to be therefore in most cases a disproportionate response to the problem of regulating mobile phone usage and I would argue that this is due to its disruptive social nature and not its effect on productivity.  When a worker receives or makes a private call from his/her workplace they are violating the separation of the private / professional spheres. In fact when such calls happen there are many things going on :

1. firstly as Goffman would say, they are showing the backstage, they are manifesting their private self by their intonation, choice of words, topics. It is a bit like seeing your colleague in pyjamas

2. secondly, they are taking away their attention from the task they should be doing, thus breaking the social contract that in most cases binds the worker to give his full attention for the duration of the work time in order to receive compensation. Any breach of this principle can be sactioned. The  mobile phone because it is so ostensive makes lapses of attention very visisble, more so than simple daydreaming or chatting with colleagues,

3. thirdly they are violating the group principle that requires the worker to be focused on the people around them, they are engaged in remote relations from which the colleagues are excluded,

4. finally they are breaking the illusion that the work environment is more important than the private one.

So while objectively, each call is a very minor loss of time, the social “damage” it is doing to the organisation is much greater, the more so when many individuals receive an make such calls. The sum of all these events thus shatters the illusion that the professional environment is self contained and fully separated from the private one. Professionals who are in charge of maintaining the organisational structure of a work environment, or people who themselves prefer to keep the two realms very clearly separated, find these  intrusions of the private very difficult to handle.  Different organisations will cope with this phenomenon in different ways, ranging from allowing the group to selfregulate behaviour, to demands for restraint, to explicit rules demanding phones to be left at the door. Some more authoritarian  regimes, have decided to regulate the issue at a national level. In xxx a law has been passed forbidding the use of mobile phones at school.

On the contrary, email which is by far the most used channel of communication, does not give rise to any of the concerns mentioned above. The fact that it is written, usually carried out on the office computer, and embedded in other work activities, make it less disruptive. The illusion of work and focus is not broken, and thus it seems less controversial. The fact that in terms of time consumption and productivity loss it is probably far worst than the phone, is never mentioned.  In our research, we saw that the peak of private email was during working hours.

It is intersting to note that IM is starting to create the same negative responses as the mobile phone. Many companies are trying to avoid supporting it technically for instance. Im is a written channel as email and therefore should pass under the radar just like email. However IM seems to elicit more disapproval. This in my opinion is because it is a synchronous channel, in which two people chat remotely. Again, engrossing in a distant conversation and relationship, is perceived more threatening to the social organisation than an asynchronous series of messages. The sense of threat and violation of “correct” professional behaviour, is therefore not just an issue of written vs oral, silent vs noisy, it is to do with the exclusion of the working partners from a focused and  participatory environment.


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