At General Motors, employees are not allowed to walk around on their phones. That’s pretty standard behavior for warehouses and manufacturing facilities, but this rule extends to the office. That means no looking at a phone on the way to a meeting. No taking calls while en route to the bathroom. No checking email while you’re going to the kitchen to get a coffee.
“We have asked people not to text and walk or walk and talk on phones because it takes your attention away from potential hazards,” says Jim Glynn, GM’s vice president of Global Workplace Safety.
The new rule, which took effect in January, came out of a letter General Motors CEO Mary Barra published in June 2017. It outlined a series of key agendas necessary to the company’s longer term stability, including a commitment to “safety in everything we do.”
Car companies are often quick to tout their safety standards because of the risks associated with driving. In 2017, some 40,000 people died in a car accident, according to estimates from the National Safety Council. Another 4.57 million were seriously injured, the report says, and crashes resulted in $4.13.8 billion in spending. Car manufacturing processes are heavily regulated to ensure parts and whole vehicles are thoroughly vetted before hitting roadways. While General Motors may already have standards to protect factory workers in compliance with Occupational Safety and Health Administration, those don’t often extend to corporate offices. What Barra was talking about in that letter was taking safety to a new level inside the company.
“Some people are going to look at this as another rule. We’re being draconian,” said Glynn. “More important than getting your job done, we don’t want you to get hurt.”
In the era of smartphone addiction, people are thinking more proactively about how to untether themselves from their screens. In 2016, CareerBuilder and Harris Poll released a survey saying workers may be attached to their smartphones, but they’re not always working. Three-quarters of employers felt at least two hours a day were lost to distractions like texting and the internet, according to the report. It dubbed smartphones a “productivity killer.”
There’s also a field of thought that smartphones and the increasingly blurred line between working and not working is zapping workers’ energy. Business magazines frequently recommend planned time away from your phone, and even prominent CEOs are limiting their smartphone use. Deloitte’s Cathy Engelbert told Fast Company in 2016 that she doesn’t reach for her phone when she first wakes up in the morning. Warren Buffet famously uses a flip phone. Some execs are even bringing their smartphone restrictions into the office. Sheldon Yellen, CEO of restoration company Belfor, told CNBC that he doesn’t allow cell phones in meetings.
For GM, the smartphone concern is less about productivity in the traditional sense and more about distraction. When phones are away, “People just become much more aware of their surroundings,” says Glynn. That makes the overall workplace safer.
In addition to the cell phone policy, GM has also instituted safety review boards for all its buildings to identify safety hazards and implement and enforce workplace safety standards. The board hosts walking tours that employees are “strongly encouraged” to participate in once a month, wherein they walk around the office or manufacturing facilities and look for ways to improve the physical safety of a given facility. “This is a global policy. We do this literally around the world,” says Glynn.
In August, the company hosts a safety week. Every office around the world videos into a town hall where the whole company reviews various safety achievements. GM also anoints “safety heroes” who have gone above and beyond their general roles within the company to ensure that workplaces are protected.
“As we all kind of alter our behavior, we get more aware of other risks,” says Glynn. He says people are now more likely to use a railing walking down stairs, or will offer to help their colleagues if they see them carrying a precarious load. Glynn says the company isn’t strict about the policy—there are no hall monitors in the office—but that the presence of these rules has been really crucial in shifting behavior.
“It can’t be, We want to be safe most of the time,” he says. “You have to be consistent.”