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Smartphones: The Pluses and Minuses for Workers

Smartphones: The Pluses and Minuses for Workers

Endowed with phone, Web, email and PDA capabilities such as a calendar, contacts and so on, handheld wireless multimedia devices like BlackBerrys, Treos and iPhones are continuously adding features to their already formidable mix. And in the workplace, these Swiss Army knife-like gadgets are usually a boon to both workers and employers. But when smartphones travel home with you in a purse or pocket, their virtues can morph into vices as fast as you can say “dinnertime interruption.”

Let’s look at the pluses and minuses of smartphones, with the goal of uncovering ways to stay in control of a device that has the potential to control your life.

Plus: Smartphones Are Powerful, Real-Time Tools for Professionals

Smartphones are valuable in many employment settings, but perhaps nowhere more so than in the mobile workplace. “There are thousands of medications out there; you can’t keep track of all of them in your head,” says Christopher Matthews, a paramedic with MedStar EMS. “I need to know if a patient is taking a medication that might have an adverse reaction to something I’d give them.”

In the past, “I would have kept a bag of medical reference books with me,” Matthews says. But with his personal Treo 700w smartphone, Matthews accesses Epocrates, a constantly updated pharmaceutical database.

In white-collar offices, smartphones are helping professionals stay fully connected, no matter the place or hour.

“We’re developing dashboards that are pushed out to smartphones with real-time info based on your job function, like network and data-center uptime,” says Vivek Kundra, chief technology officer for the city of Washington, DC’s IT department. About 600 of Kundra’s staff of 760 have smartphones, some of which are iPhones.

Minus: All-in-One Handhelds Aren’t Perfect

On the flip side, with so many functions, seamless integration is a huge challenge and a moving target for gadget makers.

In other words: Smartphones have their quirks. “Sometimes the calendar will change my appointments by plus or minus an hour depending on which time zone I’m in,” says Matthews.

And the very multifunctionality of smartphones, together with cramming lots of buttons and keys into a compact device, can make them frustrating to use. Jennifer Goodwin, principal of, occasionally gets annoyed with her BlackBerry, because “there are so many features -- you must constantly close out of accidentally opened programs.”

Full-Time Accessibility Cuts Both Ways

For many professionals trying to weave a complex web of work and life, smartphones can be an incredible boon.

“You can skip out early and attend your son’s T-ball game, knowing that you’ll be instantly accessible to anyone,” says Laura Stack, author of The Exhaustion Cure. “But this ‘always on’ behavior can contribute to overwork and workaholism if not managed correctly.”

Indeed, in the view of some professionals, using a smartphone for work isn’t worth the benefits. “Some employees have refused a smartphone, because they know their managers would suddenly expect them to be available after working hours, and they aren’t willing to give their time away for free,” says Stack.

Enlightened employers are acknowledging that they won’t retain their best workers if they treat them like a 24-hour concierge service. “I’m seeing movement today toward setting limits,” says Karen Berg, a communications consultant and media trainer. “We’re not necessarily any more productive by being connected all the time.”

Set Expectations to Avoid 24/7 Syndrome

The best way to guard your private time is to let key people at work know when you’ll be available to talk, email or text -- and when you won’t. “People should be sending a short email to their bosses in the morning with their schedule for the day,” says Berg.

Of course, there will come a time when your boss presses you to be online or on call when you don’t want to be. Berg advises: “Carry around phrases in your hip pocket for those situations, like ‘I’ll be connected until 6 p.m., but I do treasure those few evening hours with my family.’”

If your bosses are wise, they won’t arbitrarily spam everyone’s smartphone with low-value communications day and night. “Expectations about responsiveness are role-based and individual rather than organizational,” says Kundra. “Some workers will respond to email on Saturday and Sunday, and some won’t. And that’s OK.”

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