‘Cyberloafing’ not always a negative

Surfing the Web could improve employees’ concentration and productivity, finds study
By Liz Bernier
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 09/15/2014

AN employee whose screen seems permanently stuck on his Facebook feed can be a significant source of frustration for his manager and co-workers.

From raised eyebrows to direct discipline, there are often negative repercussions to wasting work time online.

But, in small doses, web surfing on company time can actually boost concentration on work tasks, according to a study.

A university researcher found non-work-related Internet browsing — often considered “cyberloafing” — actually replenishes attentional resources, enabling greater concentration on work.

“We need breaks in our workday, much like we need to take breaks when driving a long distance,” said Brent Coker, lecturer at the University of
Melbourne and author of the study
Workplace Internet Leisure Browsing (WILB).

“Concentration levels begin to wane fairly quickly when concentrating after about an hour or so. But not all breaks restore concentration to the same extent,” he said.

“For example, a walk in the forest will refresh concentration much faster and to a greater extent than simply sitting in a lunchroom. My data shows evidence that WILB is an enjoyable activity, which enables efficient restoration of concentration.”

Employers and managers may need to redefine their perception of what is an acceptable use of break time throughout the day, said Connie Stamper, regional vice-president, management resources at Robert Half in Toronto.

“If you look over the generations, going for a cup of coffee, standing around the water cooler… some people go out for cigarettes, and all of those things become kind of embedded in our (perception) that it’s OK to do that once in a while,” she said.

“I’m wondering if, as soon as you walk by somebody who is on the computer but not on office work, if there is a stigma attached to that. So is it at a place where it’s part of the respectability of taking a break from our regular day, just to refocus and re-energize, or is it still something that’s identified as a time-waster, and maybe even a time-stealer from our employers?”

Removing stigma around Internet browsing on breaks could help improve employee motivation and performance, said Coker.

“Overwhelmingly, management research suggests that workers who feel they have a degree of freedom in the workplace perform better than those who feel they are stifled and not in control,” he said.

“Health benefits are also evident: Those who feel they are not in control at work have a higher chance of heart attack. The Internet is now so firmly ingrained in our lives that if you block or restrict access to it, it makes us feel like we are not in control. The result is less motivation and less loyalty to an employer.”

Of course, there are some tasks where you do need to stay focused for long periods, and Internet breaks just may not make sense, said Andrea Plotnick, national director of organizational effectiveness at Hay Group in Toronto.

“If you’re adding long lists of numbers, to take a break in the middle of adding your long list of numbers probably isn’t going to be very productive. Or if you’re editing a document where you’ve really got to get through the flow of the document and stay immersed in it, taking a break probably won’t be as effective. But, as a general rule… it makes sense,” she said.

“Some of it is job-dependant but I do think it represents a different philosophy in really needing to think through: What are you holding people accountable for during the day? Are you managing their tasks and closely supervising them, or are you holding them accountable for outcomes?”

This may require a shift in management philosophy around whether employees should be heavily supervised or trusted to complete their tasks without supervision, said Plotnick

“Are people going to totally abuse the system, and we need to control them? Or is there some trust involved here, and if you set challenging goals for people, you hold them accountable for what they need to do at the end of the day, then you trust that they’re going to get it done and not have to zero in on the minutiae of what they’re doing throughout the day.”

A lot of the negative attitudes about browsing on worktime centre around perception, said Stamper — especially perceptions by management.

“(We did) a study not that long ago asking CFOs... ‘What are the greatest time-wasters at work for employees?’ And non-business-related Internet use was ranked as the second-greatest time-waster, at 25 per cent,” she said. “How much of it is related to perception?”

These perceptions can target millennial employees in particular, said Stamper. However, the study found that younger workers seem to particularly benefit from periodic Internet breaks.

“The need for more instant gratification, and the reduced attention span, does impact the millennials more... they’re used to taking more of those breaks,” said Plotnick.

Managers of millennials should bear that in mind, said Stamper, perhaps changing their approach from trying to forbid Internet browsing to simply trying to help employees manage their time.

“Most folks who manage
millennials will scratch their heads a little bit about how to manage them, how to set expectations, so perhaps this is a good indicator for managers of millennials if they’re always harping on, ‘Get off Facebook, get off Pinterest…’ Maybe that isn’t something we need to be harping on as much as, ‘How much time are you on that?’” she said.

It’s important to note that it’s not only millennials who enjoy browsing and social media breaks — in fact, it likely depends more on the individual than the generational cohort, said Coker.

“It depends on whether the person enjoys Facebook or gains enjoyment and has a social interaction or not. This suggests it is the attitude — not the age — that
matters,” he said.

The major implication the study puts forth for managers is that
periodic, reasonable Internet use on worktime should not be treated as “cyberloafing” and seen as an offence to be punished, wrote Coker in the study.

“Obviously, employees who spend all their time on social media sites are not going to be very productive,” he said. “But if social media is an option during normal periods of mini break activity — such as taking place of chatting at the water cooler, cigarette break, making a coffee, et cetera — then employers could accept it. Rather than simply blocking social websites, many employers are now monitoring its usage to ensure it doesn’t eat into too much productivity time.”

Some companies have already shifted from locking down social media sites to simply monitoring them for excessive use, said Stamper.

“Certain companies will clock how much time the average employee uses company resources for non-company-related items, and then highlight the outliers. And then that goes to managers to take care of,” she said.

But, ultimately, it’s the attitude that needs to change, said Plotnick.

“There needs to be a little bit of trust around how people are going to use (the Internet), especially since the boundaries between work and home are so blurred now. When people go home, if the expectation is they’re checking their emails and they’re doing work-related things at home, then I think the reverse needs to hold as well.”

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