Digital Restrictions at Work: Exploring How Selectively Exclusive Policies Affect Crisis Communication

Digital Restrictions at Work: Exploring How Selectively Exclusive Policies Affect Crisis Communication

Jessica L. Ford, Keri K. Stephens, Jacob S. Ford
DOI: 10.4018/IJISCRAM.2014100102
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As mobile devices become more pervasive, there is an assumption that mobile use is ubiquitous within organizations. However, some organizations enforce policies that restrict mobile use at work, often ignoring the ethical safety implications of these decisions. This study explores how a mobile device ban at work affects how employees receive urgent information. Based on previous research on the digital divide and organizational justice, this study examines two different types of organizations with similar policies restricting mobile use at work. Here the authors address how organizations operating under these policies play a unique gatekeeping role in managing safety and emergency information. Three major themes emerged from the data: lost information, forgotten workers, and worker dispersion. These themes bring attention to the implications of digital restrictions, which prevent certain employees from receiving crucial information in an emergency. The findings from this research encourage more inclusive policies around mobile use and prompt future research on digital inequality in the workplace.
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Research on new media and crises illustrate how communication technologies, such as text messages and Twitter, connect individuals in dire, stressful situations (Hughes & Palen, 2009; Schultz, Utz, & Goritz, 2011; Tapia, Moore, & Johnson, 2013; Veil, Buehner, & Palenchar, 2011). Consequently, scholars and practitioners now have a more nuanced understanding of how individuals share information during the inception of a crisis (Sutton, Palen, & Shklovski, 2008) and how people respond during emergency evacuations (Mileti & Peek, 2000). Also, research shows how organizations communicate with people through their mobile devices after a crisis occurs to provide updated information (Stephens, Barrett, & Mahometta, 2013). For instance, when the University of Texas initiated their active shooter emergency response protocol in 2010, the notification and safety instruction messages with the widest reach were messages sent from the university to their stakeholders though mobile phones and email (Stephens, Ford, Barrett, & Mahometta, 2014). In a crisis, such as an active shooter emergency, immediate message dissemination is vital. Mobile devices provide a medium for instant, widespread communication in an emergency (Hughes & Palen, 2009; Stephens et al., 2014).

Despite the benefits mobile devices offer during a crisis, some organizations impose policies that prevent employees from using personal mobile devices at work. Organizations establish these rules to counter the distraction that social media and other personal mediated communication can cause during the workday (Griffiths, 2003). In the unfortunate event of an emergency or crisis, employees’ access to technology could be an important factor in acquiring information about response protocol. This study invites researchers, and organizations, to consider the implications of limiting employees’ access to technologies during a crisis.

The robust body of research on the digital divide (see Hargittai & Hsieh, 2013) reveals more than a binary distinction between those people who have access to technology and those who do not. Early research on the digital divide exposed that socioeconomic factors were instrumental in determining who had access (DiMaggio & Hargittai, 2001). To better capture the complexity of the digital divide, recently, researchers propose that digital inequalities more accurately reflect the varying degrees of access to technology (Hargittai & Hsieh, 2013). In this study, we seek to further expand these gradations by investigating the implications of digital inequalities and their influence on crisis management. When organizations restrict employees’ access to mobile devices at work (Half, 2009; Zachry & Ferro, 2013), the digital divide is a result of structural implementations, not social determinants, as previously conceptualized.

The purpose of this paper is to identify how a workplace policy restricting mobile device use affects the reception of urgent messages. First, we draw from literature on the digital divide, mobile use at work, and mobile use during emergencies to inform our data collection. Second, we describe the focus group data collection and the grounded theory method of analysis we used in this project. Finally, we discuss the contributions this study offers to the present literature, as well as the practical implications of these findings for managers and organizations.

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