One Researcher Doesn’t Mix Work and Personal Life on Her Phone. Here’s Why.

Good Systems
Sep 29, 2020 · 6 min read

By Keri Stephens

A laptop and two smart phones sit on a table.
Electronic devices. Photo by Keri Stephens.

Keri Stephens, a University of Texas at Austin professor in organizational communication technology, is a Good Systems Grand Challenge researcher whose work has centered around the role of technology in organizations, particularly in the context of crisis, disaster, and health. Here, Stephens discusses the effects of using personal mobile devices for work and how to secure data while also maintaining privacy.

When I was in graduate school, I remember standing in the checkout line at the grocery store, watching a toddler get her mom’s phone from her purse, type in her password and start playing games. Her mom was in a business suit, and two minutes earlier, I’d heard her discussing a business deal on that phone. I realized right then the dangers of mixing personal and company business on electronic devices, and I haven’t checked email on my mobile phone since that day in 2004. Now during the COVID-19 pandemic, while working fully from my home, I’m grateful that I control my email instead of letting it control me.

As a professor of organizational communication and technology and as co-director of UT’s Technology & Information Policy Institute, I think about tech use quite a bit — and there are two reasons I removed all email apps from my phone more than 15 years ago. First, by studying others, I realized that I, myself, lack the self-control to set boundaries. And second, I became increasingly concerned about bring-your-own-device to work, or BYOD, policies.

Chances are that you, too, have come across BYOD policies, sometimes called a technology use policy. These policies are often presented as an employee benefit: you get to use your personal devices for work, and all you need to do is download a security-level application to your phone. Having this type of security software on employees’ mobile devices is important for safeguarding confidential organizational data. But in addition to securing data, some of these apps monitor employee behavior, and some have the capability to remotely wipe the entire contents of your mobile devices if they are ever lost.

Workplace monitoring is not new, but certain types are controversial because they can undermine the trust between employees and employers. Quite often, the monitoring occurs behind the scenes — like most security-level applications. And while employees may have checked a box saying they are aware this is happening, they typically don’t read the fine print. Monitoring can also become more active when wrongdoing is expected, and in the academic literature, this is usually called surveillance.

Workplace Monitoring and Surveillance

Monitoring and surveillance can happen passively, where employees are only vaguely aware it is occurring, and these behind-the-scenes practices can subtly remind them they are being watched, and thus keep them on their best behavior and being productive. But these practices can also be quite overt and bring privacy concerns out into the open. Some companies ask their employees to turn video cameras on all day while working remotely. They may say this helps coworkers reach each other more quickly, but it can also serve as a way to monitor employee productivity.

It’s perhaps ironic, then, that research actually suggests these practices negatively affect productivity. This is probably because while surveillance may curb misbehavior, it also increases employee stress. This is something I’ve seen firsthand in the workplace, in education, and while writing my book, Negotiating Control: Organizations and Mobile Communication, which explores how employees broker boundaries between work and personal mobile phone use.

Confronting BYOD Policies

When I teach about BYOD and monitoring policies to my students, they are often shocked. Many of them are looking forward to having their employer provide them the mobile tools they need to do their jobs, including a mobile phone, and then I explain that the default in many companies is to have their employees bring their own mobile devices (BYOD) to work. I introduce a scenario where I give them a choice of having a company-provided mobile phone, that is not the current model, and not an iPhone (UT college students’ device of choice), or they can use their personal device. Immediately, more than 90% of them agree that they want to use their own personal phone. As we end this discussion, I share something I found when writing my book: they have just voluntarily participated in agreeing to be monitored, a concept called free control; a powerful form of control over others because it lurks in the background, so employees often forget it exists.

Not many employees are given an option to have a “company phone” today, but those who make that choice encounter other challenges. While this provides them one way to separate their personal conversations and data from their monitored organizational business, they now have to carry two separate phones, and they have remember which phone serves which purpose. One person in my study of hospital workers not only carried her personal mobile phone, but she also carried an iPad, a pager, and a unit-issued work phone. She explained how hard it was to keep them all straight because there were times she was “buzzing all over her body.”

In addition to mobile phones, some organizations provide computers and much of the software needed for people to do their jobs. However, they also monitor the activities happening on these devices, which is outlined in their policies — policies most employees never read. I show my students copies and examples and explain that they need to know what they agree to when they sign these documents and download specific monitoring software, even if they have no option but to comply.

Yet some organizations have gone to the opposite extreme and have banned employees outright from using personal mobile phones at work. The problem with this, however, is that it can be unfairly applied and have unintended consequences.

In one company I researched, custodians could not use their personal mobile phones at work, but the policy did not apply to most other employees in the same organization. Beyond the obvious unequal application of the rule, it caused very real work issues because custodians had no way to ask for help from their colleagues when they needed to move large furniture or complete other cleaning tasks that required extra hands.

Whatever your company’s mobile device policies are, it’s important to be informed so you can make the best decision on how to use the technology that keeps everyone safe and gives you peace of mind.

Surveillance and Education

A recent trend in overt surveillance concerns me just as much: these practices are drifting from employment situations into academia. This summer, I witnessed my college-aged daughter being “watched” through computer video by a live proctor as she took a 200-question, 1.5-hour exam. Before she began, she told everyone in our family to be quiet for two hours and disappeared into her room. When she re-appeared she looked exhausted, and explained that in the middle of her exam, the proctor heard a noise when I dropped something in the kitchen, and he questioned her. She had to pause, remove her camera, and show the proctor she was not cheating. After sharing how stressful the experience was with us, she went to bed early that night. She is a strong student, but she performed worse on the two live-proctored exams she took that semester than she had in any other college class.

As someone who studies issues of organizational control, technology and inequality, seeing my own daughter experience this caused me wonder what it’s like to be a college student, living in a small apartment, with six siblings, and shaky internet service. How do those students handle being watched, through video, when they take exams? And I know one thing for sure: I won’t do this to my own students.

Please join us on this journey.

Good Systems is a research grand challenge at The University of Texas at Austin. We’re a team of information and computer scientists, robotics experts, engineers, humanists and philosophers, policy and communication scholars, architects, and designers. Our goal over the next eight years is to design AI technologies that benefit society. Follow us on Twitter, join us at our events, and come back to our blog for updates.

Keri Stephens, Ph.D., is a professor in Organizational Communication Technology and Co-Director of the Technology and Information Policy Institute in the Moody College of Communication. Her research examines the role of technology in organizational practices and organizing processes, especially in contexts of crisis, disaster, and health. Stephens’ book “Negotiating Control: Organizations and Mobile Communication” is published by Oxford University Press and won 2 National-level awards in 2019.

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