Last May, Fabuwood, a kitchen cabinet manufacturer in Newark, instituted a new company policy: No phones allowed during meetings.
To enforce it, the company installed “device shelves” outside each of its six glass-walled conference rooms. On a recent Wednesday morning, there were animated meetings in three of the conference rooms, and the shelves outside were full of smartphones, tablets and ’90s-style flip phones. The 1,200-person company pays the cost of a flip phone for anyone who gives up their smartphone, and 80 people have acted on the offer.
Surprisingly, employees say they like it. Rena Stoff, a project manager, said that while at first she hated the idea of being deprived of her smartphone, she now finds it has made meetings — that she once found boring and unnecessary — engaging and productive.
“Having the phone away from me has almost made my brain more open to information,” she said.
Fabuwood’s founder and chief executive, Joel Epstein, was motivated by his personal belief that smartphones are “destroying our personal and professional lives.”
He started using a flip phone seven years ago after developing carpal tunnel symptoms in his hands from near-constant use of his BlackBerry. He said that he slept better, felt more productive at work and had more meaningful communications. Mr. Epstein, a Hasidic Jew, said his choice of device was not unusual in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, which encourages the use of “kosher phones” with limited internet access.
Last year, Mr. Epstein queried Fabuwood managers on how often their workers were on their phones; they estimated two hours per day on average. He asked a warehouse safety officer, whose job typically entails monitoring for unsafe conditions, to secretly document each time he saw an employee using a phone in the office. Mr. Epstein said that many of the company’s poorest performers were on the list.
Mr. Epstein decided to fight back against the devices competing for his employees’ time and attention with an “InFocus” initiative, asking workers to keep personal devices out of sight while on the job. No one is punished for violating the rule, but managers will email reminders when they notice any backsliding.
There was some grumbling when the initiative was proposed, with some predicting that people would quit. But that didn’t happen, Mr. Epstein said. Instead, poor performers improved. “Within six months, productivity was up 20 percent,” he said, citing internal corporate metrics.
What has surprised him most, he said, was the steady stream of messages from employees saying the program has been life-changing.
I heard about Fabuwood’s initiative after I published an article about fighting my own iPhone addiction by switching to a flip phone for a month. Abraham Brull, a manager of software development at Fabuwood, emailed me saying that he had struggled with his smartphone dependence in the past and that it had helped him to join a company where healthier technology use was encouraged.
His was among hundreds of emails I received. Many were from flip phone enthusiasts who disagreed with my suggestion that using a “dumb phone” indefinitely wasn’t an option. Long-term flip phone users of all ages and professions said their lives were better without smartphones, and that their marriages, relationships with their children and mental health had flourished as a result.
Alba Souto, 29, from Spain, said not having a smartphone had made her relationship with her husband, who also switched to an old Nokia, “more mysterious and exciting.”
“Not having access to each other at all times via messaging apps has improved the quality of the time we spend together,” she wrote in an email. “We have more to talk about.”
“I love it,” wrote Christopher Casino, 29, of Brooklyn, N.Y., who switched in October to a Cat flip phone that allows him to access Uber, Maps and Spotify, but not social media or news apps. “I do my hobbies more consistently. I read on the subway. I talk to my husband more. I don’t feel the crushing pressure of knowing everything instantly and saying the perfect thing online.”
Advice for ‘Flip Phone February’
Sarah Thibault, 43, an artist in Los Angeles, said she planned to participate in “Flip Phone February,” an idea that I proposed to follow Dry January. She was inspired to give up her smartphone by a viral video of a crowd of phones ringing in the New Year in Paris.
She created a Flip Phone February community on Reddit to share messages and tips with other participants. I joined and posted a link to a contest that Siggi’s Yogurt recently announced offering $10,000, flip phones, smartphone lockboxes and, of course, free yogurt to 10 people who commit to a monthlong digital detox. The company’s spokeswoman told me 322,935 people had entered the contest.
Longtime flip phone users advised newbies to “look things up” before leaving the house, carry a pen and notebook and to warn friends, colleagues and family members about the decision to go smartphone-free.
My own advice is to consult the Dumbphone Finder to see the options on the market; Sunbeam and Kyocera were popular recommendations from readers. But make sure to check with your carrier to find out which “feature phones” — industry parlance for non-smartphones — your network supports.
You may also need to get other tech to fill in the gaps. I turned to a digital alarm clock that I got in middle school in the ’90s. (It still works!) Kelin Carolyn Zhang, a product designer who does an annual smartphone detox, wrote that she was using an old digital camcorder this year so she can TikTok her way through the flip phone journey.
Those who make the switch be warned: There were quite a few complaints in my inbox about our increasingly smartphone-centric world.
“The issue that is most disturbing to me, and one that I wish that journalists and regulators would turn their attention to, is the ever-increasing need to have a smartphone to navigate daily life,” wrote a 47-year-old father with no mobile phone at all. “Ten years ago, lacking a phone meant some minor social challenges; nowadays, it can be hard to go through ordinary life.”
He has been frustrated by the now common use of QR codes to get into sporting events and to access restaurant menus. He and many others said payment machines at parking lots often direct people to pay via a smartphone.
“I just got a parking ticket this week because I couldn’t go online and pay via their QR code or app,” wrote a 31-year-old Missouri mother with a flip phone. But she said it was worth it.
“Even in these moments I wouldn’t go back to the smartphone. I am done being enslaved to a piece of tech that has robbed me and my kids of my attention,” she wrote. “Your child-raising years are short. Your kids NEED YOU. Want to be a good mom? Want to raise healthy kids? The best thing you can do is throw your smartphone into the toilet, even for a short while.”
(But don’t actually throw your smartphone in the toilet. You might need to connect it to Wi-Fi at some point to get a two-factor authentication code.)
Some readers, such as one corporate executive and mother of three, said they “could never go flip.”
“The invention of the smartphone has enabled work-life integration in ways I couldn’t imagine!” she wrote.
She said her hacks for making it less addictive included turning off notifications and deleting social media apps. She and others thanked me for pointing to a study that found switching a smartphone from color to gray scale mode helped people significantly reduce their screen time. “Pumped about the grayscale tip,” she wrote, “turning that on today!”
For those who are wondering, I’ve now been using my flip phone as my main phone for two months. But I did get a second line for my smartphone to use when access to the internet is a necessity. I’m not sure, for example, that I would have been able to find Fabuwood’s headquarters — on unfamiliar roads in industrial Newark — without it.