A friend of mine told me the other day that her company blocked employee access to Facebook. I thought, "What kind of Dark Ages is that company living in?!"
It's true that excessive Internet browsing at work can cut into your productivity; however, moderate amounts of browsing can actually increase productivity. This is something that we reported on in 2009, and now a new study supports the findings.
There's a twist, though, via personal emailing.
"Personal emailing puts employees in a double bind," said the study's authors, Don J. Q. Chen and Vivien K. G. Lim of the National University of Singapore. "First, the compelling need to reply to a received email impedes employees' psychological engagement by affecting their ability to concentrate. Second, when employees reply to these emails, they experience resource depletion, negative affect and workflow disruption."
Chen and Lim warn employers against excessive monitoring and surveillance of workers' Internet access.
"Rather than reducing cyberloafing, excessive monitoring increases its frequency, as employees invariably view such policies as a form of mistrust that the company has in them," they said. "In view of this, managers must recognize that blanket policies that prohibit all forms of personal Web usage are ineffective, and excessive monitoring is likely to be counterproductive. Instead, limited amount of personal Web use should be allowed, since it has salubrious impact on employees' productivity."
The conclusions of the new report emerge from two separate studies, one an experiment with undergraduate management students and the other a survey of working adults.
In the student experiment, 96 participants were randomly assigned to one of three groups—a control group, a rest-break group and a browsing-the-Internet group. All subjects were first assigned to spend 20 minutes highlighting as many letter e's as they could find in a text of 3,500 words. At the conclusion of this exercise, subjects spent 10 minutes in one of three ways: the control group was assigned a filler task that involved bundling sticks into groups of fives; the rest-break group was free to do anything they wanted except to use the Internet (their activities included visiting the washroom, making phone calls and text-messaging friends); and the third group was allowed 10 minutes to browse pre-selected Web sites including those offering news, social networking, online gaming, entertainment and hobby-related activities.
Finally, all participants were instructed to spend 10 minutes highlighting as many letter a's as they could find in 2,000 words of text, this final assignment serving as a proxy for productivity. And, before being dismissed, the subjects were asked to complete a post-experimental questionnaire that measured their levels of mental exhaustion, boredom and psychological engagement.
Chen and Lim reported that participants in the Internet-browsing group were significantly more productive than those in the other two groups, highlighting a mean of 316 letter a's, compared to 272 for the rest-break group and 227 for the control group; in other words, the Internet browsers were 16 percent more productive than the rest-break group and 39 percent more productive than the control group. In addition, compared to both of the other groups, the browsers reported significantly lower levels of mental exhaustion and boredom and significantly higher levels psychological engagement.
In the second study, randomly selected alumni of a business school were surveyed by mail about their activities at work—specifically the amount of Internet browsing and emailing they did, their psychological engagement with their work and their positive and negative affect, or mental state, immediately after cyberloafing. One hundred ninety-one alumni, about one third of those solicited, mailed in surveys, which revealed the following:
- Amount of Internet browsing is significantly and positively related to such upbeat mental states as excited, interested, alert and active, and inversely related to such negative mental states as distressed, fearful, hostile and jittery.
- Amount of emailing activity, in distinct contrast, is significantly related to negative mental states but not to upbeat ones.
The authors conclude that Internet browsing enhances psychological engagement with work—and possibly job creativity as well—whereas emails "negatively affect employees' ability to concentrate on work."
Chen and Lim urge companies to "strike a middle ground between work and cyberloafing...allow[ing] for personal Web usage as long as it is in line with business objectives. In light of this study, an acceptable Internet use policy would allow for periodic Web browsing while limiting the access to personal emails."
As for most things in life, striking a good balance is the key to long-term success.
Do you "cyberloaf" at work? How depressed to you get when answering emails?
(Story materials provided by the Academy of Management.)