Smartphones are one of the biggest technological revolutions of recent times. The internet may have been world shaking, but having an internet enabled computer in your pocket has made that shake an earthquake.
The constant access to email and endless slew of productivity apps has led us to see these devices as essential productivity tools, and many of us couldn’t now imagine working without them. But anecdotal evidence alone points to a number of downsides. Are smartphones really making us more efficient?
Let’s start with the negatives. Information overload is becoming a common problem. We’re surrounded by constant notifications – email, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, RSS feeds and so on. Smartphones means that these are always there. Rare is the time you get to just sit and stare out the window, or to just think. For a lot of people, smartphones mean never clocking off.
This time is essential for creative thinking and many people report the feeling of information overload as a consequence of constant access to the internet. Brains in this state aren’t going to be at their most productive.
One company in Germany has switched off email to its employees’ Blackberries after 5pm so the temptation to continue checking email after office hours is removed. Recognition that time off is just as important as time on.
An even more immediate problem is simple attention span. Or to put it another way – the availability of distractions. Just as people may experience some form of information overload, the constant availability of information is addictive. Rather than sit and think out a problem, nowadays most people head straight to Google.
The reflex to pick up your phone and check your various notifications is automatic for many. Rather than acting as a productivity aid, the mobile can be a distraction pure and simple.
Then again, smartphones have opened up workspaces that traditionally weren’t there. They allow us to be contactable at times we normally wouldn’t have been – on trains, working from home – and using cloud based applications allow us access to many of the same resources as we would have from the office.
Time that otherwise would have been wasted travelling, or trying to transfer information, such as by emailing it to yourself or even getting the office to fax/courier something over to a meeting across town, has now been opened up as productive time.
And then there are the productivity apps that provide functions unique to smartphones. Things like electronic signature capture – removing the need for a dedicated device and automatically uploading customer signatures and any associated data to the requisite folder in the cloud (removing the need for filing later).
Things like mileage trackers that use the phone’s GPS to track mileage more effectively, and more efficiently, than noting down the mileage of the vehicle.
Although this is only a brief overview, it should be clear that smartphones are a mixed back in terms of efficiency. Their potential is great, but they have just as much potential to distract as to aid.
The real answer is that smartphones have opened up enormous productivity gains, but as a disruptive technology, we as people have still yet to figure out exactly how to incorporate them into our lives. Anyone who remembers the first 6 months with an iPhone will surely agree.