Smartphone Etiquette to Help You Win at Work

For many people, it’s the first thing they look at when they wake up in the morning and the last thing they check before going to bed at night. No, we’re not talking about the great book you’re reading, your kids, your spouse, or even your own reflection. We’re talking about your smartphone.

According to the U.S. edition of the 2018 Global Mobile Consumer Survey from Deloitte, American consumers check their smartphones an average of 52 times every day, or over 3 times every waking hour. That number is significantly higher for cell phone users between the ages of 18 and 34, who check their phones over 100 times a day. It’s no wonder that discussions about smartphone etiquette are at top-of-mind in our culture—or that July has been deemed cell phone courtesy month.

Naturally, we also check our smartphones at the office. But have you ever thought about the effect that poor boundaries and inconsiderate cell phone behavior could be having on your career? Are you standing in the way of your own success? Overusing your phone at work makes you appear less serious, less powerful, less productive, and less able to focus. Conversely, being able to limit your cell phone use at the office gives you an automatic edge over less disciplined colleagues.

If you’re ready to practice better smartphone etiquette and control your cell phone habit (instead of letting it control you), keep reading. These tips can help you win at work.

The Do’s and Don’ts of Workplace Cell Phone Manners

Even though the modern workplace is becoming more phone-tolerant, older professionals are far more likely to think cell phone use at work is always inappropriate. That’s right—those people who are in direct authority over you and sign your paychecks don’t like it when you’re on your phone too often. Other behaviors, such as talking on the phone in shared spaces or playing games on your phone are also considered taboo in the workplace. We’ve broken down proper smartphone etiquette into five specific scenarios to help you navigate any office situation you may encounter.

Basic Office Smartphone Etiquette.

Our work environments may have changed significantly in the past few decades, but our ideas about respect and basic courtesy haven’t changed that much. Establishing a few professional courtesies when it comes to your smartphone use at work will improve your reputation as a dedicated, collegial employee and coworker.  

  • Keep your phone on silent. Even if you have your own office, it’s best to turn off both your ringer and any other notification sounds while you’re at work. Our brains are now conditioned to respond to our smartphone buzzing and dinging, which can be a distraction to you and your coworkers.
  • Limit phone use to important calls—and take it outside. Or to an empty meeting room, huddle space, or other private area. While it’s perfectly acceptable to answer a call from your child’s school or to respond to a family emergency, save casual conversations for your break or your drive home. Hands-free, of course.
  • Keep it professional. Smartphones are often an important business tool, especially if your job requires a lot of time out of the office or in meetings. Conducting business, scheduling appointments, or responding to work emails from your phone are sometimes necessary evils. However, you’re unlikely to score any points with your boss and coworkers if you spend your time sending personal texts, playing games, watching videos, or scrolling social media feeds.
  • Don’t use your phone in the restroom. We’ve all seen those movie scenes where an employee is having a loud conversation in the bathroom stall while coworkers are forced to listen in. Don’t be that person. It’s not only rude to your colleagues, it’s also rude to the person you’re talking to.

Cell Phone Protocol At Your Desk.

First, it’s important to recognize that “at your desk” can mean different things for different employees. Do you have your own office with a door that closes? Do you share an office? Or do you work in an open concept office where you share space with colleagues? Your answers to these questions will, in large part, determine the proper smartphone etiquette. Here are a couple general guidelines to keep in mind when using your cell phone at your desk.

  • Limit texting. Typically, unless your employer forbids any phone use at work, it’s not considered rude to send a quick text message while at your desk—but be careful and consider how you’re presenting yourself. You don’t want it to look like you aren’t on task during the workday.
  • Step away from your desk to take your call. If you have your own office and can close the door, it’s alright to take phone calls at your desk. However, if you share space in any way, it’s best to take your calls elsewhere. (As long as you’re not conducting business or taking personal calls in the restroom or break room!) If you take the call outside, try to observe the 10-foot rule. In other words, don’t pace and talk right next to someone else’s office window.
  • Out of sight, out of mind. Did you know that recent studies have shown that the mere presence of your smartphone reduces your brainpower? Even if it’s turned off. That’s right. Just by having your smartphone within your field of vision, you may be splitting your focus and sabotaging your own productivity. The best practice at work is to keep your cell phone in a desk drawer or in your bag instead of on your workspace next to your computer. Discipline yourself to check your phone only at predetermined times and then put it away again. You may feel jumpy, nervous, and disconnected at first—but you can retrain your brain, and your neurons will thank you.  

Smartphone Etiquette In a Meeting.

In a recent survey, over half of respondents admitted to regularly checking their phones during meetings and presentations—the problem has gotten so bad that many top CEOs are banning smartphones from meetings.

We get it. Meetings can suck. But they suck a lot more when everyone is distracted, half-listening, asking questions that have already been answered, and causing presenters to have to repeat themselves. The best way to ensure a lively, dynamic and productive meeting is to be alert and engaged yourself. This may mean putting your smartphone away, nodding, speaking up and offering suggestions. Bonus: when you contribute to the ongoing conversation at your office, you’re more likely to get noticed for that upcoming promotion.

  • Keep your cell phone off the conference table. Remember that study we mentioned earlier? Your cell phone is a distraction, even when it’s not in use. Placing your cell phone on the conference table causes you to split your attention. It gives your brain a virtual escape route that may prevent you from focusing on the task at hand or keep you from having that next breakthrough idea. More importantly, putting your phone in front of you can signal to your employer and coworkers that you aren’t taking the meeting seriously.  
  • And out of your lap. You aren’t fooling anyone—we all know what you’re doing down there.
  • Unless it’s being used as a meeting tool—then turn off notifications. Of course, it’s all about the context and there are exceptions to every rule. Using your smartphone as a tool to conduct business is a common situation that doesn’t negatively affect your focus during the meeting. You may need to use your personal phone to make a conference call, record a meeting for internal use, or wirelessly connect to an interactive display to control your presentation slides. In any of these situations, be sure you’ve turned off all notifications before the meeting begins. The last thing you want is a sweet text from your significant other popping up in front of all your coworkers.
  • Excuse yourself if you have to take a call. Life happens, and even employers understand this. If your spouse is in the hospital, you’re the primary caregiver for your elderly mom, or your kid is on a school trip and you get an important call, it’s okay to step out for a moment. Do it quickly and with as little fanfare as possible—this isn’t the time for profuse apologies and long-winded explanations. Simply say something like: “Excuse me. This is about my mom.” And then step out of the meeting and into a private place to accept the call. When you’re finished, return to the meeting without saying anything. You can let everyone know what’s going on later.  

Using a Smartphone While at a Business Lunch or Coffee.

You finally got your manager or a senior partner at your firm to agree to have lunch with you this Friday. Don’t blow the opportunity by practicing poor cell phone etiquette during the lunch meeting. Even if your lunch or coffee is with peers, if they’re important enough to schedule time with outside of the office, they deserve your full attention.  

  • Don’t make your smartphone part of the place setting. We may be starting to sound like a broken record here, but you don’t want to put your phone on the lunch or coffee table for the same reasons you don’t want it out on your desk or on the conference table. It distracts you and it signals to your lunch partner that you aren’t invested in the conversation. Plus, it’s just too tempting to take a quick peek. Keep the phone in the bag to avoid the temptation.
  • Give your undivided attention to the person in front of you. Whatever you do, don’t glance down at your phone while you’re having lunch with a colleague. It may seem like a minor infraction to you, but unless you’re a first responder or other emergency worker, it’s generally considered to be rude. Good things happen when people get together and start talking, especially over a meal. Checking your phone will definitely ruin the moment and interfere with the rapport you’re working so hard to build.
  • If you’re waiting for an important call or text, provide advance notice. Have you ever found yourself double-booked or waiting for an important call or text during another important event? If you’re in this situation during a business lunch, give your colleague advance notice. Say something like: “My apologies, but my boss is trying to schedule a big meeting later this week and I may need to take a quick call or text to confirm the time.” When the call or text comes in, deal with it as quickly as possible and get back to the person you’re with.

Cell Phone Use In the Break Room.

Would it surprise you to know that innovative ideas are more likely during informal meetings and casual bump-ins with your colleagues than during a scheduled meeting? Modern workplaces are taking advantage of this fact by designing flexible work environments that may include non-traditional break areas such as café spaces, couches, lounge-like areas, and even foosball or air hockey tables. No matter what your break room looks like, you could be depriving yourself of great ideas and valuable networking opportunities if you spend all of your time buried in your phone.   

  • Don’t take calls in the break room. Generally speaking, you should treat the break room like any other common area and avoid using it to take your calls. Even if you’re the only one in there at the moment, a colleague could walk in and be inconvenienced by your conversation.
  • Glance up from your phone when people enter your space. Sometimes, you really do need a break from everything and everyone. You may need to plug in your phone and watch some videos, listen to your music, or text a good friend—and that’s totally fine. Just be sure that you don’t let your behavior border on anti-social. When other people enter the space, look up. Smile, nod, make eye contact, say a quick hello. Do something to acknowledge their presence before you go back to your phone.  
  • When possible, prioritize in-person interactions. While you may need an electronic escape from time-to-time, try not to make it a habit or to use your phone as a crutch in uncomfortable situations. Prioritizing conversations with your coworkers over virtual interactions will help you feel more job satisfaction and put you on track for career success.


Remember, there’s a time and a place for everything. As our workplaces become more connected to the outside world, it’s important that we don’t allow ourselves to become disconnected from each other.

If you’re trying to practice good cell phone etiquette at work and you encounter a new situation, use your common sense and follow three fundamental rules: 1.) Don’t allow your phone to become a distraction to yourself or others, 2.) Focus 100-percent of your mental energy on the task at hand, and 3.) Give the person in front of you your undivided attention.   

By following these three rules, you will establish yourself as a disciplined, personable, serious employee who’s ready to win at work.