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When It Comes To Smartphones, Employers Better Watch Out

I was out and about the other day and realized that my cell phone was dead. Just then, I saw a young 20-something woman walking toward me.

"Could I bother you for the time?" I asked.
"Huh?" she said, looking confused.

I realized the phrase "bother you for the time" had thrown her off, so I rephrased my question. "Oh," she said, whipping out her smartphone. "It's 1:15." I thanked her and moved on.

Later, I was out with my kids at Chuck E. Cheese. Wall-to-wall people, total insanity. Amid the noise and flashing lights, I noticed that very few parents were wearing watches. They were checking the time on their smartphones.

So there I was, standing in the middle of Chuck E. Cheese wondering what the smartphone-as-watch trend means for the workplace. When you think about it, the office clock has spawned an entire lexicon we use to describe our work life. Clocking in, clocking out. On the clock, off the clock. Clock watching. Clocking time. Getting clocked. On my watch, by my watch. Saved by the bell. Quitting time.

Our workplace obsession with clocks and watches has even followed workers out the door. How have employers traditionally acknowledged a retiring employee's contributions? By presenting him or her with a gold watch, of course.

But watches don't mean as much to Gen X and Gen Y employees, who are more likely to wear them because they look fashionable but not necessarily for time management purposes. For younger generations, watches represent form over function. A watch is something that's nice to have, but it's not as necessary to navigate the modern world.

For evidence, just look at the statistics. A recent Frost and Sullivan report estimates smartphones to triple to 442.9 million devices in use by 2014. Meanwhile, watch sales were already falling as far back as 2006.

So what does the smartphone-as-watch trend mean for management? For one, employers will need to reassess their decades-old trick of setting office clocks fast to get employees to work sooner. We've all been there. You show up for work on time, at least according to your watch. But the office clock says you're late. So you set your watch to the office clock, even though you know it's running seven minutes fast. That's how things were done back in the Age of Timex.

But today's employees are trekking to the office wielding cell-tower powered timepieces. The office clock might say it's 8:07 a.m., but the employee's wireless provider says it's 7:59 a.m. The employee has the power of a major third party corporation behind him if the boss says something about being tardy. Hey boss, I'm not late because Sprint/Verizon/AT&T says I'm right on time. So there! Employees can't change the time on their smartphones like they could on a traditional watch, either. Any time changes happen automatically, depending on what the atomic clock says.

The smartphone-as-watch trend may not be leading to many outright boss-employee arguments right now, but more employees will feel emboldened to make their case as the job market tilts in their favor. Employers will also have to watch out for the up-and-coming generation of tech savvy Millennials, who are sure to shake up traditional workplace time management practices even more.

The good news for employers is that the smartphone-as-watch trend could create additional efficiencies. For starters, everyone will be on the same page -- er, screen -- when it comes to time management so there's no longer any excuse for being late. And if your workplace has perpetual employee lateness problems, you might want to think about the smartphone-as-watch trend in relation to your workplace and re-adjust the office clock accordingly.

Smartphone wallets and covers will make great employee gifts this year. Oh, and when someone retires, forget the gold watch. Instead, offer to renew the retiring employee's wireless plan for six months or more. If you want to go all out, buy the soon-to-be-ex-employee a new smartphone. Now that's a gift that keeps on giving.

A cool workplace experiment would be to remove the office wall clocks without telling employees, just to see how long it takes for them to notice. Would they notice right away, or would it take awhile? And what would they say when they realize the clocks aren't there? I bet a few employees would think, "It's good to see the company crossing the bridge to the 21st Century. I never looked at the office clock anyway because it was always wrong."

Our office lexicon will change as the wrist watch becomes a relic of the past, too. Just imagine the workplace 30 years from now, when employees could be saying "by my screen" instead "by my watch." Who knows what will happen, but it will be fascinating to see how workplace language evolves in the coming decades thanks to technology.

It's time to think about it, employers. Time's a ticking.

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