Che cos’è il phubbing: un ostacolo alla comunicazione e alla serenità in azienda

We all do it, perhaps unknowingly, at home, with friends, and even at the office. When we fall victim to it, we realize how annoying it can be, but despite this, it does seem to be a temptation stronger than us: it is phubbing. But what does it consist of? Why is it harmful? And above all, how can it be avoided?


One aspect that at Performant by SCOA we always emphasize with the companies we work with is that behaviors, of whatever kind, are observable. There are some, then, that are not only observable, but even evident, in plain sight at any time of day, and among these is phubbing. The term phubbing was coined in 2012 by the University of Sydney and is the result of the crasis between the English words phone and snubbing. Over time, it has become increasingly widespread, so much so that it has now also entered the headwords of the Treccani, which defines it as ‘the action, the fact of neglecting one’s physical interlocutor to consult one’s mobile phone or other interactive devices often, more or less compulsively’. 

An attitude that, according to a study by the University of Kent, precisely because it comes naturally, is now considered as ‘normative and not harmful in general’, as it meets three criteria, which are those of false consent, reciprocity, and frequency, leading individuals to consider a widely spread attitude as accepted and acceptable on a large scale. In reality, the message that gets through is that whatever notification reaches one of the two interlocutors is more important than the person in front of them.

It is the discrepancy between the perceptions of the people involved that generates, even in a company, the problem: if in the eyes of one party nothing wrong is being done, the other party perceives it as rude. This can have large negative effects on the quality of relationships and consequently on the trust, engagement, and productivity of employees.

What are the (negative) effects of phubbing?

After 2020, with the spread of smart working and the possibility of on-call meetings, going to the office in many contexts and organizations is no longer an obligation. Yet it is clear to everyone what the added value of a hybrid way of working is, of transforming the office from a place where you can be at your computer from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. to a place where you can weave relationships, have exchanges on a more human level and be involved in what you do by creating a bond with the people you do it with.

In this context, the danger of phubbing becomes even more insidious, because it undermines the quality of being together, triggering a spiral from which it is difficult to escape. The one who carries it out (the phubber) risks starting a vicious circle in which the one who suffers it (the phubbee), annoyed and bored by the phubber’s attitude, pulls out his phone, becoming a phubber in turn: an automatic chain that generates a widespread sense of isolation and exclusion that, on the one hand, undermines everything for which the office still exists, on the other hand, at a deeper level, it creates an organizational and behavioral culture in which carelessness and a lack of listening are found daily, which then give rise to negative consequences on relationships and misunderstandings linked to loss of information, difficulties in coordination and lack of alignment on the activities to be carried out. 

The aforementioned study from the University of Kent shows how phubbing significantly worsens communication and relationships between people, as it is a form of social exclusion: using the phone while someone is talking to us threatens relational human needs that are fundamental, such as belonging, self-esteem, sense of achievement and control, and in addition worsens people’s moods.

This aspect should not be underestimated, especially in the corporate context, where engagement, satisfaction, and self-esteem are very important elements for the well-being of employees.

The consequences are even worse when what researchers at Baylor University’s Hankamer School of Business define as boss phubbing occurs, i.e. a supervisor’s habit of being distracted by his or her smartphone when talking or in close contact with employees: this can be a real obstacle in building a fruitful relationship, but above all, it can undermine the professional development of the employee himself.

Research has shown that the most notable consequences on the team of boss phubbing concern:

Le conseguenze del boss phubbing
  • lack of trust in the supervisor (76%)
  • decreased self-esteem and mental well-being (75%)
  • lower commitment to work activities (5%)
Employees who experience boss phubbing, therefore, have lower levels of trust in their supervisor and this also means they are less likely to feel that their work is valuable or that professional growth is possible. Consequently, employees working under the supervision of a phubber tend to have less confidence in their ability to do the job. Not exactly the situation a manager would wish for the company, therefore. How to counter phubbing in the workplace As we said, phubbing is something that comes naturally (a study by reviews.org says that people check their phone 144 times a day), which we tend not to notice when we do it, and consequently, we do not notice the discomfort of the person on whom we are practicing it. This is precisely why it is useful to work on building an organizational culture that emphasizes the quality of relationships and mutual respect. The element that is emphasized during coaching sessions is awareness. Realizing how often and how one acts a certain behavior is the starting point to get to the question that is at the heart of the attitude itself: why do I do it? In the case of phubbing, the stimulus might come from social network notifications or messages from family or friends, or from work itself: a message in the Slack thread, an email from the boss, or a WhatsApp from the client is a ‘sudden distraction’ that pull one away from one’s colleagues even during break times, such as coffee or lunch.  Creating a culture for a healthier use of the smartphone from a social point of view therefore also involves the organization of the company and to do this, certain skills should be developed:
  • time & task management: not everything that comes in is urgent. Creating an environment in which workers are not obliged to respond to every message in the shortest possible time makes it easier to feel empowered to continue talking to the people in front of you rather than holing up on the phone or computer all of a sudden.
  • Conflict management: it is often easier to avoid a conflict than to deal with it, and the phone is a good excuse to escape from a situation we don’t like. An urgent message, or a phone call that has to be answered, are escape routes that are always at hand. Encouraging co-workers to confront each other, and express their opinion without fear, can also be useful to prevent the use of the telephone from leaving misunderstandings hanging.
  • interpersonal communication: by message, misunderstandings are more likely, while a face-to-face conversation makes people understand each other better. It is important to make people feel stimulated to talk and relate to others to be more involved in what they do, also by creating areas of the office and moments dedicated to integration and getting to know each other.
  • Feedback: Constant discussion between supervisor and employee encourages confrontation and honesty, and increases mutual trust and a sense of belonging. Allowing the employee to speak freely with his or her supervisor is a way of making the supervisor understand if there are attitudes he or she implements that may be an obstacle to the employee’s professional development (such as the attitude he or she has with his or her smartphone).
To allow everyone to develop these skills, a working method is needed that contrasts with the idea of having to be connected and productive all the time. For example, during classes and coaching sessions, Performant’s coaches establish what is called a ‘classroom pact’, i.e. Coachees are asked to abide by rules to improve concentration and awareness, such as leaving their mobile phones out of sight to be 100% present on what is happening.  Similarly, in companies no-phone areas can be established, such as meeting rooms or coffee areas, to dedicate those spaces only to interaction between people, or no-fly hours, time slots in which it is not allowed to schedule calls, send e-mails or messages (barring real emergencies) to concentrate on the work to be done without interruptions. A mindset change should therefore be implemented, taking time to educate people about disconnection and creating a culture of healthy relationship building.