Loafing Online Can Be A Valuable Part Of A Productive Workday

According to one study, Americans spend a shocking 24% of their work hours messing around online. But is that all bad?

With March Madness fading into April’s baseball fever, this is a particularly opportune time to take stock of a new social concern: cyberloafing.

Cyberloafing, also known as cyberslacking, occurs when employees use their companies’ computing and Internet resources for non-work related activities during business hours. Cyberloafing includes activities such as Internet browsing, online shopping and banking, social networking, emailing, and viewing online media such as YouTube or sporting events.

Some organizations address cyberloafing by spelling out acceptable use policies for Internet resources. These policies may not be effective when they lack sanctions, according to a recent study by Joseph Ugrin from Kansas State University and J. Michael Pearson from Southern Illinois University. Their study suggests that policies succeed only when employees are made aware of offending colleagues who had been caught and punished. But this study was based only on survey information collected from workers and students; essentially, people saying what they would do in given situations. But we all know that people act differently than they think they do. And I find it hard to believe that publicizing employee sanctions contributes to positive employee morale, or is good for business in general, even if it reduces cyberloafing.

How pervasive is cyberloafing?

Is cyberloafing even an issue? Are people really spending valuable work time on personal matters? An April 2012 paper by two researchers from the National University of Singapore, Vivien Lim and Don Chen, cites several surveys that quantify the amount of work hours being spent online for personal purposes. Specifically, they point to the following numbers:

  • In 2005 and 2006, the computer security firm Websense found that 61% of U.S. employees cyberloaf and that on average, U.S. employees spend 24% of their work time cyberloafing. This amounts to about 10 hours/week, more than one work day per week.
  • In 2006, a survey published by Debt Cubed found that 34 million Americans cyberloaf, which accounts for over 200 million wasted hours per week, according to the survey. This translates to about 1 and a quarter hours per day.
  • CBS Interactive reported that during the 2002 holiday season, Brits were spending 40% of their time cyberloafing.

At least some of these numbers should be taken with a grain of salt since they were generated by organizations with an interest in highlighting the problem’s severity. In contrast, Lim and Chen found that employees self-reported only about 51 minutes a day on average spent cyberloafing.

The truth most certainly lies somewhere in the middle. We can safely say that workers are spending an hour or two on average using their employer’s internet doing personal tasks. And with the increased availability of bandwidth and wireless access everyone on campus, workers are certainly doing more cyberloafing today than in the past. But is this really a problem we need to solve?

Is it really so bad?

While some employers bemoan the wasted time and bandwidth their employees are consuming, consider this...cyberloafing may actually be beneficial, depending on what people are doing. Lim and Chen found that employees reported reduced levels of stress and positive emotions following sessions of internet browsing, making them more productive, not less. (Related: YouTube can be good for you!) In contrast, the researchers found that answering email did not have the same positive effect; the authors attribute this to the notion that answering email requires more concentration that web browsing.

Cyberloafing may be beneficial for another reason. As people spend more time at work, they have less time to catch up with personal activities. So, it may make good business sense to let an employee spend a half hour on her bank web site, rather than spend the same time on the phone with a call center rep, or even take off time to go down to a branch.

Besides, assuming the activity does not consume significant amounts of bandwidth that impedes business activities, is watching a funny YouTube video any different than spending time at the company foosball or ping pong table, or standing around in the coffee break room shooting the breeze with colleagues?

I believe that the answer to these questions is increasingly ‘it doesn’t matter.’ With more and more employees bringing their tablets and smartphones to work (see the article “Making Sure BYOD Doesn’t Mean "Bring Your Own Disaster” for more details), they won’t even need their employer’s equipment or internet connection to cyberloaf. With an iPad or smartphone and a 3G/4G connection, employees can let off all the steam they want without being subject to the prying eyes of their employers.

Recommendations

Clearly, cyberloafing represents a potential for abuse of time and resources as well as a loss of workplace productivity so it shouldn’t be taken lightly, but clamping down on employees is counterproductive and I believe, increasingly ineffective. A healthy balance has to be struck, so here are some recommendations about what you can do to maximize the business opportunity that cyberloafing presents, while minimizing the time wasted:

  • Most importantly, don’t look at reasonable use of the corporate Internet for personal benefit as "loafing" or "slacking." Consider the benefits of letting employees take a break during the day.
  • Establish accepted usage practices for Internet resources and communicate these to employees. Although by themselves policies may be difficult to enforce, articulating acceptable behavior guidelines is intended to create an environment of mutual respect. Keeping in mind that detection and punishment will become more difficult over time, these policies should be fair and reasonable, allotting employees time to blow off steam and take care of personal business during the work day.
  • Even if your organization cannot provide personal Internet access on employee workstations due to security (or other) concerns, provide alternative Internet access--for example, in break rooms or in special cubicles where people can take a break.
  • Differentiate between initiated Internet breaks and ongoing distractions. For example, alerts generated by personal email, personal social networks like Facebook, and personal instant messaging like Skype can be particularly distracting and generally interfere with work. So create policies that differentiate between the two types of activities and educate employees on the differences.
  • During heightened periods of personal Internet interest, like the holiday season or March Madness, reiterate usage policies. During playoff seasons or around popular award ceremonies, offer alternatives to individual video viewing, such as group screenings in a break room. Besides saving internet bandwidth and being limited in the amount of time allotted, these activities also have the additional benefit of creating valuable interactions among colleagues.
  • Remember that as more people spend their workday doing creative activities, measuring actual work hours may not be the best way to gauge productivity. Unless people are working on an assembly line, managing output, rather than time worked, may be a better way to measure productivity.
  • And finally, be reasonable. Most people will be fair if you treat them like adults. There will always be people who abuse the system, but everyone shouldn’t suffer because of them. Deal with the abusers, but trying to stamp out cyberloafing will create ill will that creates a backlash; namely, employees abusing Internet resources to "get back" at employers.

What do you think? I would like to hear your ideas for dealing with cyberloafing….especially if you are reading this on your employer’s computer during work hours.

[Image: Flickr user Sean Jackson]

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