Internet Surfing in Moderation Aids Productivity, Professor Says

By Kathy Gurchiek Apr 29, 2009
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Surfing the Internet—in moderation—for fun at work raises an employee’s productivity, according to a recent study from the University of Melbourne in Australia.

WILB—workplace Internet leisure browsing—allows a worker to reset the mind after completing one task and improve concentration for the next, according to Brent Coker from the school’s Department of Management and Marketing.

“Essentially, we’re given tasks, which are broken up into smaller chunks of time,” Coker said in a YouTube video. “At the end of each mini-task, we like to reward ourselves,” whether that’s getting a cup of coffee or surfing the ’Net, before proceeding to the next task.

“If we’re not given the chance to have a break between these mini-tasks,” he noted, “our concentration slides down.”

Close to three-fourths (71 percent)of workers use the Internet at work for non-work browsing, according to the March 2009 online survey of 259 randomly selected office workers across Australia. Among the most popular activities:

  • Searching for product information.
  • Reading online news sites.
  • Searching for information about hobbies or personal things.
  • Checking/writing non-work-related e-mail from personal e-mail accounts.

The general attitude among employers is that using the Internet for personal reasons during work hours “is akin to goofing off and should be discouraged,” Coker writes in his report, Freedom to Surf: The Productive Benefits of Workplace Internet Leisure Browsing.

A New York City employee with 14 years on the job was fired, in part, because of time spent on the Internet. He went online after his work was completed, and other employees were also surfing the Internet at work.

Taking several short breaks, though, might improve performance better than taking fewer long breaks, according to Coker, who found workers who WILB in moderation are 9 percent more productive than those who are not able to surf the Internet for fun. Productivity starts to decrease when an employee spends more than 15 percent of his or her time on cyber breaks, he found.

Fourteen percent of workers surveyed showed signs of obsessive-compulsive Internet use hurting their lives in some way, such as neglecting family and friends in favor of surfing the Internet, Coker said.

While Internet addiction is not recognized officially as an addiction in the American Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, “given that everybody surveyed are ‘users’ of the Internet, I am not surprised 14 percent showed signs of addiction,” he told SHRM Online.

For Internet addicts, “the more they surfed on the Internet at work, the less productive they were,” he said in the YouTube video.

“Too much WILBing may begin to eat into workers’ ability to maintain sufficient quality of output” or to complete tasks, he said. For those not addicted to the Internet, though, brief surfing can serve as a mental break.

He’s not advising employers to lift bans on personal use of the Internet, he told SHRM Online, but “our data suggest attitudes should change. Giving your employees more freedom can and does have some positive outcomes.

“If the employer can be assured that employees will not WILB excessively, then perhaps they should open the firewalls.”

Another study, by multi-platform online games provider PopCap Games, released findings in 2008 that purport that one daily 10-minute e-break in the workday increases productivity. In conjunction with the findings release, PopCap invited workers to lobby their employers anonymously for such a break.

PopCap’s findings were based on research conducted on a cross section of United Kingdom businesses under the supervision of Goldsmiths University psychologist Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic. He looked at the effect of different types of online breaks on employee performance.

“With workdays becoming increasingly longer and workloads more demanding, U.K. bosses are introducing Internet bans to help combat alleged productivity loss and inappropriate use of workplace resources,” Chamorro-Premuzic observed in a PopCap press release.

“Yet bosses are missing a trick by introducing e-bans,” he added.

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