Do BlackBerrys Hurt Our Productivity?

As the smartphone market explodes, it's perfectly reasonable to ask whether these devices are actually improving our productivity. On the one hand, it's clear to me that answering work email on DC Metro -- when I'd otherwise be listening to Coldplay and staring at the floor -- adds productivity where there would otherwise be mere idleness. On the other hand, I'm sensitive to the argument that we don't always use our BlackBerrys, iPhones and Androids in a terribly efficient way.

James Kwak, the wonderful economics blogger at Baseline Scenario, argues that BlackBerry has "made a fortune off the myth of efficiency." Let's take a look at his argument:

The reason BlackBerry is so popular with corporations is the idea that now people can be working while waiting in lines at the airport.* (Judging from the ads, this is the core use case.) That time is now money, at least according to the efficiency theory. But what are people doing? They are clearing out emails. If there is any benefit to anyone, it is that they will spend a little less time in the evening clearing out emails on their computers; but they won't be doing any other work, because the length of their workday isn't set by a clock, but by their sense of when they've done enough for the day. (For a lot of people, their willingness to knock off at the end of the day is related to the amount of email left in their inboxes.)

Surely a smart phone's utility extends beyond airport security lines. Every day introduces dead weight time for which a smart phone at least offers a connection to our work, our friends, and the outside world.

To the "cleaning out emails" point, I find that I actually save quite a bit of time cleaning out my inbox on-the-go so that when I get back to my computer, the emails waiting for me are the emails I want to respond to. This is as close to pure time saved as I can imagine.

In addition, a lot of the supposed BlackBerry benefit is destroyed by four factors. First, working on a BlackBerry is less efficient than working on a computer (it takes more time to get the same stuff done), so some of your benefit (time waiting in line) is wasted in lower productivity.

He's right that using a BlackBerry is much less productive than using a computer. But that's hardly damning. Assuming that the time I spend waiting in line, or on the subway, would otherwise be spent staring at the floor, even slow typing of necessary emails is time saved.

Second, checking your email constantly causes you to respond to emails and deal with issues that you could have simply ignored had you waited until you got home or to your hotel (since questions or issues posed in email often resolve themselves if you simply wait a few hours).

BlackBerrys don't "cause" us to respond to all mail (we've already established that they're useful for deleting email, too). Instead they give us the opportunity to respond to important news immediately, which is a more efficient way of solving pressing issues than waiting until you get home.

If somebody without a BlackBerry finds that after-hour work questions "often resolve themselves if you simply wait a few hours," maybe it's because workers with BlackBerrys were resolving those questions before he knew they existed. One thing is certain: Not responding to questions is not more efficient than responding to questions.

Third, having a BlackBerry causes you to spend more time on email than you need to, because you can. But people lobby their companies to pay for their BlackBerrys because they want them, and companies often agree because they think they're getting a more efficient workforce.

I suppose I don't see how spending more time on email is necessarily unproductive, or even sub-optimally productive. Again, if I'm on the subway listening to Coldplay and staring at the floor, I'm accomplishing nothing of particular use for my company. If I'm responding to my boss's questions (even slowly, with typos), my BlackBerry has contributed to both my efficiency and my boss's without forcing me to sacrifice anything terribly meaningful.

Fourth, the quality of work you do on a BlackBerry is lower than on a computer. For example, with a computer, you can answer a question by finding a specific data source and actually finding the answer; with a BlackBerry, you are more likely to give an unhelpful answer like "try looking at source X," which you may have misidentified, and which is less helpful to the person asking the question.

To the bold part: Sure, but I'd imagine few employers expect their workers to compose final draft memos on the BlackBerrys. The work on smart phones is best thought of as a way to stay connected and bridge the time between seats at your desk. It's sort of like telling my roommate doing push-ups in the apartment, "You know that's a much lower quality work-out than joining a fully stocked gym." That's right, of course, but it's not an argument against doing push-ups at the apartment (which incidentally lacks a fully stocked gym).

James ends: "In case you're wondering, I have no BlackBerry and no similar device for checking email while waiting in airport lines. (My dumbphone can, in a real pinch, check my email, but it's so bad at it I rarely use it.)" I appreciate this honesty. But not owning a smart phone limits one's analysis their usefulness. I find there's always a few minutes of dead weight time during the day, and the ability to fill even these few minutes with responding to work, friends and family email is actually quite useful.

But I'm interested in what the commenters think about their own smartphones...