Manager-employee psychological contracts: enter the smartphone

Elena Obushenkova (Department of Management and International Business, University of Auckland, Auckland, New Zealand)
Barbara Plester (Department of Management and International Business, University of Auckland, Auckland, New Zealand)
Nigel Haworth (Department of Management and International Business, University of Auckland, Auckland, New Zealand)

Employee Relations

ISSN: 0142-5455

Publication date: 12 February 2018



The purpose of this paper is to investigate how company-provided smartphones and user-device attachment influence the psychological contract between employees and managers in terms of connectivity expectations and outcomes.


Data were collected using qualitative semi-structured interviews with 28 participants from four organizations.


The study showed that when organizations provide smartphones to their employees, the smartphones become a part of the manager-employee relationship through user-device attachment and this can change connectivity expectations for both employees and managers.

Research limitations/implications

Due to participant numbers, these findings may not be generalizable to all employees and managers who receive company smartphones. However, the authors have important implications for theory. The smartphone influence on the psychological climate and its role as a signal for workplace expectations suggest that mobile information and communication technology devices must be considered in psychological contract formation, development, change and breach.

Practical implications

The perceived expectations can lead to hyper-connectivity which can have a number of negative performance and health outcomes such as technostress, burnout, absenteeism and work-life conflict.

Social implications

Smartphone usage and user-device attachment have the potential to redefine human relations by encouraging and normalizing hyper-connected relationships.


This study makes an original contribution to psychological contract theory by showing that smartphones and attachment to these devices create perceived expectations to stay connected to work and create negative outcomes, especially for managers.



Obushenkova, E., Plester, B. and Haworth, N. (2018), "Manager-employee psychological contracts: enter the smartphone", Employee Relations, Vol. 40 No. 2, pp. 193-207.

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Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2018, Emerald Publishing Limited


Technological devices have the ability to facilitate and even alter human relationships. However, despite the exponential growth of mobile information and communication technology (ICT) usage in the workplace (Peters and Allouch, 2005) research on how such technologies can impact the employment relationship between employees and their managers is still in its nascent stage. The psychological contract (a central concept in employment relations) refers to the idea that individuals within organizations have perceptions and expectations about their obligations to each other (Rousseau, 1989). Psychological contracts are subjective and can include a wide range of expectations about factors such as work hours and productivity (Conway and Briner, 2009). Psychological contract expectations usually form at the start of the recruitment process, however, expectations can change at any point during employment, especially if perceived promises are broken, interrupted or altered by noticeable events (Rousseau, 1995).

When an organization adopts ICTs or they provide ICT devices to employees, it can change expectations regarding communication, flexibility and connectivity (Bittman et al., 2009; Cavazotte et al., 2014; Duxbury and Smart, 2011; Jaakson and Kallaste, 2010). Due to rapid advancements in ICTs, one of the key expectations in contemporary workplaces is about how connected managers and employees are to each other outside of normal work hours. According to Kolb et al. (2008), the optimal amount of connectivity is called “requisite connectivity,” which refers to having an appropriate level of connectivity to perform effectively. Individuals can also experience “hypo-connectivity,” which refers to not being connected enough to perform well, and “hyper-connectivity” which is too much connectivity, creating overload which can lead to distraction and burnout (Kolb et al., 2008). Usually individuals can exercise agency (Bandura, 2006) over their own connectivity by either engaging or disengaging with work through using a technological device. However, changing developments in information technology (IT) are generating pressure on individuals to maintain a connection with work during non-work times.

When investigating technological effects on employment relationships, research must also consider the relationship between individuals and their technological devices. Turkle (2007) argues that individuals can develop strong attachments to inanimate objects and because smartphones are with people during important life events, individuals can develop a relationship with their smartphone (Beer, 2012). This suggests that user-device attachment is an important concept because attachment to ICT devices may influence expectations in terms of work-related ICT usage (Orlikowski, 2007) and this may alter the psychological contract. This present research explores whether company-provided smartphones and user-device attachment modify the employee-manager psychological contract, specifically in terms of connectivity expectations and outcomes. In our exploratory study, we ask the following research questions:


How does user-device attachment to company-provided smartphones change psychological contract expectations in regards to connectivity for employees and managers?


What do the perceived connectivity expectations mean for employees and managers in terms of their connectivity outcomes?

We begin by reviewing the psychological contract literature and outlining how individuals typically learn psychological contract expectations. We also discuss implicit and explicit expectations and mutual obligations. We explore the changing connectivity expectations caused by various ICT behaviors and review research into user-device relationships to investigate how new connectivity expectations may influence psychological contracts for both employees and their managers. The qualitative methods are explained followed by our key findings. Our discussion explores the notion that through the phenomenon of “user-device attachment,” smartphones not only enter workplace relationships but become a significant participant in the psychological contract itself. Furthermore, smartphones can contribute toward the experience of hyper-connectivity in manager-employee psychological contracts, and this has implications for workplace relationships as well as a wider impact upon everyday human interactions.

Theoretical foundations

Psychological contracts

Originating in the 1960s, psychological contract theory posits that workplace contracts combine both explicit elements such as remuneration and the hours of work with implicit elements that relate to expectations between individuals, managers and organizations (Coyle-Shapiro and Parzefall, 2008; McInnis, 2012). In her seminal research, Rousseau (1989) claims that psychological contracts are not just expectations but are also mutual obligations based on individual beliefs. Psychological contracts are subjective promises and parties to a contract can have very different perceptions regarding the terms of these implicit contracts.

Psychological contract formation starts with receiving information or “messages” about the expectations and obligations for a particular employment relationship (Rousseau, 1995). Salient information (factors that are more noticeable and important to employees) are more likely to be a part of the psychological contract (Tomprou and Nikolaou, 2011). Once hired, the terms of the psychological contract are perceived through communication with managers, or by observing actions of both managers and co-workers and direct managers greatly influence the formation of the psychological contract (Shore and Tetrick, 1994). Psychological contracts are further developed through organizational processes and it is apparent that these implicit contracts are influenced at multiple organizational levels from the dyadic manager-employee level, team level and the wider organizational level.

Psychological contracts can act as a frame of reference, a schema that employees can use for predicting the outcomes of certain behavior and reducing uncertainty about their employment relationship as well as about their organizational life in general (Sharpe, 2002). This results in increased feeling of control and security (Sharpe, 2002). Rousseau (1995) also argues that when psychological contracts are kept, they can make individuals and organizations more productive (p. 9).

Issues can arise in psychological contracts because organizations have varied and numerous expectations of employees, and employees have varied and numerous notions about what the organization should be providing them (Anderson and Schalk, 1998, p. 641). If these expectations are not met, individuals can experience strong reactions such as anger and may display deviant behavior (Anderson and Schalk, 1998, p. 644). Although some expectations are more conscious than others and should, therefore, be easier to discuss and meet, the key barrier to meeting these expectations is that most of them are implicit and individuals tend to avoid discussing them directly or frequently (Anderson and Schalk, 1998).

In order to avoid discrepancies and contract violation, it is essential for both parties, in a psychological contract, to have at least some mutuality and understanding (Dabos and Rousseau, 2004). This need is usually fulfilled by a naturally occurring drive to preserve a fair balance in incentives and contributions that employees and employers offer each other in reciprocal relationships (Dabos and Rousseau, 2004). Without this fair balance, one side of the party can experience guilt if they feel that they are not fulfilling perceived expectations. According to Robinson et al. (1994, p. 137), mutual obligations are the essence of employment contracts. Mutual obligations can arise from either explicitly or implicitly made (or perceived) promises, however they still remain perceptual which means that each party has its own understanding of them (Robinson et al., 1994).

User-device attachment

ICT devices such as smartphones have rapidly been assimilated into peoples’ everyday lives to the extent that they may be present at all times, including both personal occasions and work events of some users. Thus, through its constant presence in personal and emotional situations, the device is perceived as more than a functional, material thing and instead it becomes an “evocative object” one that creates an emotional response (Turkle, 2007; Vincent, 2015). When seemingly functional objects assume additional importance through their association with emotional life events, they can become highly important to individuals who become strongly attached to both the function of the device as well as the device itself (Beer, 2012; Turkle, 2007).

Some individuals become so attached to their smartphone that they begin seeing it as a part of their “self” and a bodily extension that they perceive as essential to their daily functioning (Hulme and Peters, 2001, p. 3). Many modern people now have such intense reliance upon their mobile devices, they can feel panic similar to losing a limb when their device is taken from them or is mislaid (Hulme and Peters, 2001, p. 3). However, different people use and integrate their smartphones in a variety of manners which means that attachment strengths and forms of attachment vary (Ragsdale and Hoover, 2016; Wehmeyer, 2008). People who assimilate their smartphone into their daily life, depending on it to complete multiple tasks or to communicate with others are more likely to have stronger user-device attachment (Ragsdale and Hoover, 2016; Wehmeyer, 2008).

Relationships with devices (Turkle, 2007; Wehmeyer, 2008) are an important consideration when investigating mobile ICT’s influence on employment relations because studies show that individuals who are more attached to their ICT devices are more likely to keep checking their devices for both work and personal updates and information (Wehmeyer, 2008). This constant monitoring of the device can lead to the formation of different expectations regarding connectivity, responsiveness and flexibility (Orlikowski, 2007).

ICT and changing workplace expectations

Matusik and Mickel (2011) argue that it is currently a “new age” in workplace connectivity. This is due to the increased flexible and mobile work and an increase in non-traditional work arrangements (Matusik and Mickel, 2011). Matusik and Mickel’s (2011) grounded theory study focuses on convergent mobile devices (such as smartphones, tablets and multifunctional computing) and find that these devices create expectations for workers to respond faster and be always accessible not just by their employers but also from external (to organizations) factors such as family (p. 1001). Because of these pressures, employees compare having a smartphone to being always “on-call” (Matusik and Mickel, 2011). Jaakson and Kallaste (2010) also conducted a study into how telework might change employee responsibilities. In their case study, they find that telework leads to an asymmetry in responsibilities by changing roles and responsibilities of both employees and employers (p. 205). However, this asymmetry is not in employees’ favor because telework tends to increase employee responsibility and intensify employee workload while providing another employee control mechanism for managers (Jaakson and Kallaste, 2010). Cumulatively, these recent studies suggest that technological advancements change both employer expectations and employee behavior.

A similar conclusion is reached by Cavazotte et al. (2014), whose study explored smartphone adoption in a Brazilian law firm and how this adoption impacts worker lives (p. 72). Company-provided ICT devices create a compelling signal regarding this expectation of continuous availability and unceasing communication between employees and their organization (Cavazotte et al., 2014, p. 79). Emerging research suggests that when employees have access to communication technologies and/or they are provided with mobile ICT devices, this increases expectations that employees will remain connected with the organization via technology (Richardson and Benbunan-Fich, 2011). Richardson and Benbunan-Fich’s (2011) study show how organizational provision of ICT influences work expectations. They have found that organizations that provide ICT to their employees have an expectation for employees to use technology and stay connected. The study shows that employee after-hours work with technology is influenced mostly by the organizational distribution of technology (Richardson and Benbunan-Fich, 2011). This means that organizational provision of technology leads to the creation of subjective norms about e-mail connectivity (p. 142).

Communication devices (especially smartphones), therefore, have the potential to alter “traditional” psychological contracts by changing expectations about responsiveness and connectedness (Mazmanian et al., 2005, p. 340). Mazmanian et al.’s (2005) sociological study focuses on the ways professionals use wireless e-mail devices and how they negotiate often conflicting connectivity expectations. Despite the possible negative effects and feelings of being unable to disconnect, Mazmanian et al. (2005, p. 340) find that individuals tend to stay connected almost continually and Orlikowski’s (2007) study also shows that professionals keep checking their smartphones throughout the day. This constant checking can also lead to greater compulsion to reply. This kind of behavior enforces social expectation for reachability and leaves no “socially acceptable” way to disconnect (Mazmanian et al., 2005).

The continuity of electronic connection to work activities can create problems for individual work-life balance (WLB) as the ability to disconnect or have “time off” work may be compromised (Dery et al., 2014). Dery et al.’s (2014) longitudinal study of workers in a global financial company shows how smartphone usage changes over time and that disconnecting from work has become impossible and often undesirable for the majority of workers (p. 558). Barley et al.’s (2011) study focuses on e-mail resulting in stress and feeling overloaded due to social norms and perceived expectations to handle large loads of emails. These expectations and the resultant anxiety about losing control or falling behind means that many workers choose to extend their working hours (Barley et al., 2011, p. 901).

While these studies show that there is some empirical research about how technological norms can alter connectivity expectations, there is currently limited empirical research about how user-device attachment can play a part in these changes. There is also a lack of studies focusing on connectivity expectations of managers and what they might mean for managerial connectivity outcomes. It is reasonable to assume that psychological contracts change in response to flexible working arrangements as these alter expectations and informal obligations between employees and managers (Jaakson and Kallaste, 2010). Therefore, we contend that through user-device attachment smartphones are enabling a constant connection between employees and managers which changes connectivity expectations and outcomes for both parties within the psychological contract. It is this emerging change in expectations, driven by technological imperatives and user-device attachment, that forms the basis of this inquiry and so, we turn next to the methodological approach.


Our research questions explore whether an individual’s relationship with their company-provided smartphone can change the psychological contract between managers and employees, specifically in regards to connectivity expectations and outcomes. A limited number of studies explore how an individual’s attachment to their mobile ICT device can influence norms and expectations and by extension psychological contracts (Orlikowski, 2007; Wehmeyer, 2008). Although few in number, the studies that have been undertaken suggest that user-device attachment could influence psychological contracts through changes in expectations and researchers call for further empirical exploration of this idea (Wehmeyer, 2008). Therefore, it is our intention to further contribute to this emerging research agenda.

Data were collected using 28-30-minute semi-structured interviews (20 employee and eight manager). These interviews aimed to understand how individuals perceive their relationship with mobile ICT devices (specifically the smartphone), and how smartphones influence their work expectations and perceived connectivity expectations. Interview questions were created using theoretical concepts from prior studies. Questions included: “How would you describe your relationship with your smartphone?” and “How does having this ICT influence your expectations regarding connectivity?”

Due to the explorative nature of this research and the use of semi-structured interviews, the data were analyzed using thematic analysis to enable greater flexibility in coding of theme categories (Braun and Clarke, 2006). Each interview was coded according to the ways the interview participants discussed expectations around ICT usage, their relationship with their ICT, its influence on connectivity and their expectations for other people in terms of ICT usage. The resulting key themes were: user-device relationship, changing and perceived expectations and being constantly connected. These themes are discussed in greater detail below.


The research was conducted with participants from four large companies within four different industries (stationery manufacturing, telecommunications, public services and government sector). The participants comprised 20 individuals at the employee level and eight individuals at the managerial level. There were 12 females and 16 males. Ages ranged widely with 16 participants being over 40 years old, and 12 under 40 years old. The roles of the individuals also varied. There were individuals in customer representative or organizer roles, field officers, individuals in office administration or accounts roles and those in IT or engineering roles.

How individuals learn about expectations?

Employees in the current study learned about their managers’ expectations from four main sources that they described as: (1) through experience or “just knowing,” (2) through job description, (3) through meetings or (4) through observing modeled behavior. While 1 and 4 are considered to be implicit sources of information, 2 and 3 are considered to be explicit sources of information. The key source from which employees learn about these expectations is “experience or just knowing.” “This indicates that the majority of employees in this study learn about managerial expectations through implicit ways:

I guess it is through experience, you just learn through different roles

(Employee, 42, male, Public services).

The second common information source is the highly explicit “job description”:

We have policies which are explained to employees in their contract so the expectation is quite explicit

(Manager, 39, male, Manufacturing).

A number of employees also confirmed that they learned about their manager’s expectations from multiple sources.

Influence of user-device attachment on expectations

Similar to previous studies, findings show that individuals with different levels of user-device attachment have different expectations. Most of the respondents, regardless of how attached they are to their smartphone, feel that they are expected to be accessible, available and responsive to the other party in the psychological contract. There were, however, differences in individual expectations for other people. Individuals who are “not attached” to their smartphones stated that they do not expect others to be constantly available and responsive. However, most of the individuals who are attached to their smartphones expressed the following expectations:

I expect them to be like me, I do expect them to be responsive

(Manager, 57, male, Assistant secretary).

I would like him to answer every time. There’s a mutual understanding between me and my manager (to respond) because he’s always on the phone

(Employee, 35, male, Government sector).

This suggests that as an individual becomes more attached to their smartphone, they are more likely to develop the expectations for other individuals to be more accessible and available, which means that attached individuals expected greater connectivity within their psychological contracts.

Changing and perceived expectations

Although participants learned expectations through different ways almost all participants still perceived an expectation to be constantly “connected” to work. Most employees felt an expectation for them to be connected to their managers through their smartphone. These quotes are typical responses from (most of) the employees:

When you are out of work we usually would always have them [phones] on but it is not a company requirement […] They just expect you to. In a way receiving a company phone means you are always obliged to call back whereas before you could say I do not have credit on my phone but now with the company phone it is expected that you will respond and call back

(Employee, 23, male, Telecommunications).

Having this phone does kind of give you the expectation that the employer is expecting [you to be available] because they give you this device

(Employee, 42, female, Public Services).

I think that there is the implied obligation that we have to be contactable almost round the clock. That has never been said but I think some people might expect us to respond to emails after hours

(Employee, 32, male, Government sector).

Although most individuals in the study perceive the expectation to be constantly connected to work, there are some differences between managers and employees in terms of how having a work smartphone changes actual connectivity expectations. While almost all of the employees do not expect their managers to be connected, managers usually expect their employees to be connected, as shown in these responses:

I do want to rely on getting hold of them, there is one or two that are slightly naughty and it tends to go to their voicemail more often than I would prefer

(Manager, 60, male, Government sector).

I certainly expect her to be contactable, but we have never really sat down and discussed that [expectation] […] It is not something we have ever discussed

(Manager, 47, male, Manufacturing).

The second quote suggests that connectivity expectations remain implicit and that the limits or boundaries of availability and responsiveness are ambiguous. For most individuals, having a company smartphone leads to increased perceived expectations for them to be more connected to work regardless of where they are or what they are doing, even if these expectations are not actually specified by the other party in the psychological contract. This also suggests that for these participants there is a mismatch of expectations in manager-employee psychological contracts.

Managerial responses indicate that it is not just the employees who feel expected to be constantly connected to work. For example, some managers responded with:

What it does do is make you more accessible I think and it might put the responsibility on you to be more accessible […] Yes I think they (employees) would expect me to be responsive

(Manager, 55, male, Public Services).

Availability I think is a big thing, they ring me when they have a problem so my job is just to make things easier for them

(Manager, 60, male, Government sector).

These excerpts show that although there are no explicit expectations for managers to be available, they see the receipt of an organizational smartphone as a signal that they are expected to be available on their phones to their employees, seemingly at all times.

Connectivity outcomes

The perceived expectations and high user-device attachment also create connectivity behaviors and outcomes. Almost all of the respondents indicated that they feel like they are constantly connected to work because of their company-provided smartphones:

I think the danger is that people expect that you have a mobile device and will be able to respond no matter where you are and no matter when. If you have a break between meetings, you do not give yourself a break, you start looking at emails and checking, trying to keep on top of it

(Employee, 42, female, Public services).

I don’t go anywhere without it, I have it beside my bed at night and that’s mainly because we run a factory 24-7 and you know I can get calls in the night when something has gone wrong in the factory

(Manager, 55, female, Manufacturing).

Many employees view this constant connectivity negatively:

I would say one of the problems is the constant connectivity. I am expected to be connected in case there’s an issue that must be solved. The mobile has to be on all the time even during the night

(Employee, 40, female, Manufacturing).

I guess it would be a mixed blessing [if the phone was taken away], on the one hand I like all the things it does but on the other hand I would not be working all the time, I would not necessarily miss having this technology because I would not have to do all that extra work at home or when I have the spare 5 minutes

(Employee, 42, female, Public services).

Just because we have a smartphone, the expectation that we always answer calls or check the email […] it can create some tension between the manager and the staff. Because they assume that you have already seen it (the message) […] I don’t check my phone all the time, yeah I find that quite annoying

(Employee, 33, male, Government sector).

Similarly to employees, managers also experience negative (if not worse) connectivity outcomes due to the perceived connectivity expectations:

I suppose there is a drawback, of course sometimes you feel like “just leave me alone” or “just give us a break” so it is constant in that sense

(Manager, 57, male, Public services).

I tend to work more hours outside of 8-5 as I have the tools to do so. It makes it harder to switch off from work because it is always with you

(Manager, 42, female, Telecommunications).

I think that is one of the downsides of mobile technology, it is always there, I am pretty good, I do not usually get drawn into stuff on the weekend but I cannot help glancing at it and I just see what has come in. So I think it has impacted on work-life balance. Not necessarily in terms of the amount of hours but the things that drag your work back into your home life and the ability to separate that off and get on having a joyful time with your family

(Manager, 55, male, Public services).

These responses suggest that being constantly connected to work might not be optimal for some individuals. Feeling constantly connected to work during non-work hours is perceived as the key negative consequence of receiving a company smartphone.


The study shows some discrepancies between employee and manager connectivity expectations. This means that there is a low level of mutuality between employees and managers in terms of these expectations (Dabos and Rousseau, 2004). While most employees felt that they are expected to be reachable, only half of managers expected their employees to be reachable. This suggests that expectations are miss-matched between managers and employees. Although, past studies have pinpointed discrepancies between managerial and employee expectations within their psychological contract (Cullinane and Dundon, 2006), the discrepancy in the present study is somewhat perplexing. This is because it is actually the employees themselves that feel increased expectations to be reachable when in reality only half of their managers expect this of their employees. This discrepancy might occur due to the implicit nature of the psychological contract. Most participants in the study learn about expectations through implicit rather than explicit ways, with most never discussing their actual expectations with the other party. This means that the only “tangible” factor that signals the reachability expectations is the smartphone itself because when an organization gives its employees mobile ICT devices this acts as a signal for reachability expectations (Richardson and Benbunan-Fich, 2011; Ruppel et al., 2013).

One of the key findings of this study shows that smartphones extend the reach of work to offsite locations and non-work hours which create pressures for both managers and employees to be (seemingly) constantly available and responsive. Prior research has found that mobile ICT devices enable work to reach employees regardless of time or location by removing the boundaries that separate work from non-work (Towers et al., 2006). In our current study, all individuals (both employees and managers) claim that they are expected to be constantly connected to each other in a two-way perceived expectation of almost constant communication. This is similar to findings from past studies, however, significantly the present study also shows that managers feel the same pressure as their subordinates to stay connected. This suggests that when employees receive smartphones from organizations, the phone also acts as a signal to managers that they are expected to make themselves more available to their employees. Whilst past studies focus mostly on employees, this study suggests that regardless of whether they are a subordinate or a manager, everyone perceives similar expectations to be accessible and available if given an organizational smartphone. It is our contention that these new expectations are creating new forms of psychological contracts between managers and employees.

In terms of our research questions, the findings suggest that the organizational provision of smartphones can create attachment to the device which subsequently changes connectivity expectations that individuals have for themselves and for the other party in the psychological contract. We go as far to suggest that the smartphone itself becomes integrated in the manager-employee relationship and creates a three-way interaction within the psychological contract. Through organizational provision and user-device attachment, the smartphone becomes a major component in the reconfiguration of employment relations, and furthers work intensification and development of networks of mobile control (Brivot and Gendron, 2011). As employees interact with these technological devices, the social and the material aspects of this interaction influence each other to create new ways of working and organizing (Leonardi and Barley, 2008). However, our study shows that it is not just employees who are being influenced by and controlled through mobile technologies but their managers’ behaviors and movement are also under surveillance.

Managers feel the same pressure to stay connected perhaps due to concertive control through peer surveillance (Barker, 1993). In this study, the managers are starting to shape their own connectivity behavior (by being constantly connected) according to perceived values of connectivity in the workplace (Cavazotte et al., 2014; Hadley, 2007). The values are then translated into norms or rules and are reinforced by workers and their peers creating the pressure to conform (Barker, 1993). Due to mobile ICTs, managerial control is no longer confined to organizational boundaries but extends into open social spaces and creates instant and continuous surveillance of individuals (Martinez, 2011). Employees are constantly connected and are subject to multiple controls regardless of where they are in the social landscape – work or home and the smartphone is merely one component (although an important one) in enabling control of workers in private or domestic spheres (Martinez, 2011). This control is also extending to managers who are now becoming targets of scrutiny of their colleagues and even employees. Smartphone surveillance and peer pressure to stay connected to work mean that there is no longer a central actor in command (Brivot and Gendron, 2011) and managers become both actors and targets of mobile control.

Our final point for discussion is that the adoption of smart technologies, user-device attachment and perceived expectations to be constantly connected can lead to the creation of actual hyper-connectivity (see Kolb, 2008), a state in which individuals feel like they are constantly connected to work. A number of theorists, however, argue that people have control over their personal connectivity levels (Kolb et al., 2012; Mazmanian et al., 2013). Mazmanian et al. (2013) argue that individuals consciously control how connected they are to work. These authors argue that individuals with the same technology and who are in the same contexts can still have different levels of connectivity because personal preference for connectivity is an important factor in how connected an individual remains. Kolb (2008) also argues that constant connectivity is not possible due to two key factors: the temporal intermittency (asynchronous communication) and actor agency (level of control over staying connected). People exercise agency rather than being the product of life circumstances (Bandura, 2006). Due to these two factors, individuals can choose their level of connectivity to work and disconnect from work as required. This actor agency would prevent the maintenance of a constant connection and allow individuals to choose their preferred level of connectivity (Kolb, 2008).

Despite the idea of personal agency, most participants in our study state feeling constantly connected to work. This suggests that, for these participants, having smartphones creates hyper-connectivity and most of the participants imply that they are unable to reduce their level of connectivity. This might happen because they either want to maintain hyper-connectivity despite its negative effects or they feel that they cannot disconnect due to perceived social norms and expectations to stay constantly connected (Mazmanian et al., 2006, pp. 19-20). Such norms and expectations can make employees and managers feel guilty toward each other if they are not constantly connected. Our participants in this current study, and this is especially true for managers, clearly articulate the pressure they feel to stay connected and their connectivity behaviors are highlighted by their admissions of keeping smartphones next to the bed at night to monitor messages and calls.

The (mostly) self-created expectations for increased connectivity and workload and the experience of being constantly connected to work can influence WLB. The majority of participants, including all of the managers, reported expecting and experiencing worsened WLB due to having company-provided smartphones. These finding are similar to findings in past studies (Duxbury and Smart, 2011; Fenner and Renn, 2010; Stanoevska-Slabeva and Granat, 2007). In the current study, however, this finding is particularly apparent for the managers who all expect and experience worsened WLB. This suggests that the pressure from expectations, potentially imposed through self-surveillance (Barker, 1993), and the social norms (Mazmanian et al., 2005) may be stronger than the perceived personal control over work-life boundaries for managers especially.

Implications for theory

From this study, we see a number of important implications for psychological contract theory. As we have asserted, the smartphone appears to enter the psychological contract between managers and employees and signal new expectations for both parties. The smartphone can influence the formation of the psychological contract by altering the psychological climate. The concept of psychological climate suggests that certain factors are more valued in the workplace and that such factors may define the psychological contract (Kickul and Liao-Troth, 2003). Advances in technology change what is valued in the workplace and, therefore, change the psychological climate. Because smartphones are now highly valued societally, this influences what is valued at work and so impacts upon the psychological climate. As the smartphone is more tangible and actual expectations are rarely discussed explicitly, it may even replace managerial and employee actions that indicate actual expectations. Contemporary workplaces now place greater value on flexibility, reachability and connectivity (Cavazotte et al., 2014; Hadley, 2007) and this is true for both managers and employees.

A large part of the psychological contract theory research focuses on the psychological contract breach and violation (Tomprou and Nikolaou, 2011). Mobile ICT devices such as smartphones can contribute to psychological contract breach by changing interpersonal communication. Similar to past studies (Walther, 1992), the current study showed that smartphones can remove the social and emotional cues in communication. This can change the manager-employee relationship by making it more impersonal and ambiguous. When there is a high level of ambiguity and subjectivity, the level of mutuality (in terms of perceived obligations and expectations) between employees and managers will decrease and the likelihood of discrepancies will increase (Dabos and Rousseau, 2004). Decreased psychological contract mutuality can lead to the breach or violation of this contract. Violations of the psychological contract can have significant negative consequences such as job dissatisfaction, intent to quit, decrease in organizational citizenship behavior and reduced effort (Lester et al., 2002).

The current study also found that the user-device attachment can change connectivity expectations within psychological contracts. This means that the formation or alteration of expectations within psychological contracts can be influenced by the user-device relationship. Overall, the findings suggest that when an organization provides smartphones to its employees, it can alter psychological contract formation, create an alternative information source about expectations, change existing expectations, increase subjectivity and ambiguity and increase the likelihood of psychological contract breach. In terms of theoretical implications, this means that the smartphone can be an important factor that can determine expectations and influence the perceived expectations and obligations (Orlikowski, 2007; Mazmanian et al., 2005). These implications suggest that mobile ICT devices must be considered in psychological contract formation, development, change and breach.

Implications for practice

User-device attachment with company-provided smartphones also creates a number of practical implications. Extensive use of smartphones reinforces constant connection (Cavazotte et al., 2014; Mazmanian et al., 2005). Regardless of whether it is actual or perceived, constant connectivity can still have serious practical implications for both employees and managers. Recent studies show that attached individuals can experience less negative effects from continuous usage of their smartphone because they might be using their device as a recovery mechanism (Ragsdale and Hoover, 2016). However, other studies show that feelings of being constantly connected to work can result in a number of health and performance-related problems, for example, technostress and burnout (Barley et al., 2011; Richardson and Benbunan-Fich, 2011). Extensive use of smartphones can also lead to “absent presence” problems (Mazmanian et al., 2006, p. 9). This refers to the idea that while individuals can maintain a connection and stay engaged through their smartphone, they become disengaged with their immediate surroundings or issues.

Work productivity can also be reduced because constant connectivity creates the potential for constant interruptions, even if merely checking one’s device, which reduces concentration on the task at hand (Grauers and Wall, 2012). Organizational expectations can also clash with family expectations (Kreiner et al., 2009) and personal downtime. Therefore, a smartphone-mediated psychological contract created at work can conflict with family and community expectations outside of work. Individuals who receive a smartphone from their organization may be more likely to neglect family expectations and needs, which can cause work-life conflict (Fenner and Renn, 2010). Work-life conflict can lead to a number of negative outcomes for both the individual and the organization and may include an increased intent to quit, stress, absenteeism and depression (Diaz et al., 2011).


This study investigates how company-provided smartphones and individual attachment to them create connectivity expectations within the manager-employee psychological contract. The key finding is that when employees and managers receive smartphones from their employing organization, this device becomes integrated into the manager-employee psychological contract. By acting as a signal, company-provided smartphones can create perceived expectations to be constantly connected to work, and this expectation is especially true for managers. This suggests that company-provided smartphones can create hyper-connectivity expectations within manager-employee psychological contracts.

Our study makes a contribution to psychological contract theory by showing that smartphones create additional work expectations for both employees and their managers that can lead to hyper-connectivity outcomes. The majority of past research on psychological contracts has focused primarily on the employee perspective (Cullinane and Dundon, 2006). Our current study adds to research and theory by including the managerial perspective because when employees are given smartphones, it also affects managers and also places greater pressure on them to also be reachable and connected, perhaps even more so than employees. The study makes a number of important contributions to theory and research within the fields of employment relations and organizational behavior through extending psychological contract understandings into the technological realm that is the new workplace reality for “connected” employees and managers.

While these findings are not generalizable to all employees and managers who receive company smartphones, they offer a thought-provoking representation of participants’ experiences from different organizational environments. More studies are needed to explore whether there are differences in psychological contract expectations and connectivity behaviors between individuals of different ethnicities or in different job roles within organizations. In terms of future research, it would also be interesting to see whether the usage of mobile ICT devices other than the smartphones also influence psychological contracts.

Organizational provision of smartphones and the new expectations about their usage may unintentionally result in the integration of mobile ICT devices into everyday life, including both work life and personal “downtime.” If smartphones are becoming another component in the manager-employee relationship and worker surveillance, they have the potential to influence human relationships at a wider level. Smartphones play a significant role in keeping individuals constantly connected to each other. This means that these technologies can redefine human relations by encouraging and normalizing hyper-connected relationships. This begs the question: how are smartphones changing human relationships and are we prepared for the consequences of mobile technologies transforming relationships into constant connections from which we can never disconnect?


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Early versions of this paper were presented at two conferences: ANZAM 2014 and ANZAM 2015.

Corresponding author

Elena Obushenkova can be contacted at: