Despite Distractions, Survey Says Internet Increases Employee Productivity

By Jenny Jones Jan 22, 2015
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The Internet is full of distractions. One minute employees are searching for work-related information and the next they are chatting on social media or analyzing their favorite sports teams’ standings.

Yet according to a recent survey from the nonpartisan Pew Research Center, 46 percent of employees say that the Internet has increased their productivity at work, while only 7 percent say it has made them less productive.

In its Technology’s Impact on Workers report, Pew surveyed 535 adult jobholders about the digital tools they use in the workplace and how those tools impact their productivity.

Lee Rainie, director of Internet, science and technology research at Pew and co-author of the survey, told SHRM Online that employees admit they are sometimes distracted by the Internet but say the technology also makes them more efficient. “So most people would say it’s a wash,” he said.

Thirty-five percent of employees surveyed say that the Internet, e-mail and cellphones have increased the amount of time they spend working. But 46 percent say that their employers block certain websites and have rules about what employees can post online.

It is unclear whether a correlation exists between blocked sites and employee productivity, Rainie noted. “Certainly bosses would like to think so,” he said. “The whole reason they impose these rules is because they’re worried people are going to waste time.”

Those worries are not unfounded.

A Leading Distraction

In 2014, the online job site CareerBuilder partnered with public opinion firm Harris Poll to conduct an online survey about the top productivity killers in the workplace.

The national survey of 2,138 hiring managers and human resource professionals and 3,022 full-time, private-sector employees indicated that the Internet is the third biggest time sink in the office behind gossip and cellphone use/texting, respectively.

CareerBuilder’s Chief Human Resources Officer Rosemary Haefner said that roughly a quarter of survey respondents confessed that they spend at least an hour a day on nonwork-related phone calls, text messages, Internet use and other activities at work.

“Humans do need sort of mental health breaks, and technology, and the Internet specifically, has made that very easy,” Haefner told SHRM Online.

Balancing Act

According to a 2012 study by the BOLT Insurance Agency, nonwork-related activities cost employers more than $130 billion annually. The agency reported that a significant amount of that money is lost to time spent on social networking and sports-related websites.

While some companies address the issue by blocking workers from using company-owned computers to access gambling, pornography and some social sites they deem too distracting, others are realizing that blocking such sites may be ineffective. “People are probably using their phones to stay connected to their various social networks [anyway],” said Carol Olsby, owner and chief executive officer of HR consultancy Carol Olsby & Associates in Bellevue, Wash. She is also a member of the Society for Human Resource Management’s (SHRM’s) Technology and HR Management Special Expertise Panel.

Policy Development

When determining how they will handle Internet use, HR managers must decide what kind of atmosphere they want to create.

“HR managers are grappling with [the question], “Can we really build off a foundation of trust or do we feel that we have to have ... an environment where we police the use of technology?” Haefner said.

Whatever they decide, HR managers must make their policies clear and communicate them to employees. “It’s a tricky thing to put into words, what’s OK and what’s not, but you need to do it; otherwise it’s a little bit difficult to hold somebody accountable,” Haefner said.

SHRM’s sample Internet use policy suggests granting employees limited personal use of the Internet, as long as it’s done during their own time and doesn’t interfere with their work. It also recommends stating that accessing the Internet through the company’s computer network is a “privilege and requires users to conduct themselves in a responsible and workplace-appropriate manner.”

Olsby agrees with SHRM’s sample policy and believes that most employees will follow their company’s guidelines without issue. “The objective whenever you are leading HR is to treat people like adults,” she said. “In general, people apply common sense.”

Believe In Magic

HR managers should also keep in mind that while the Internet can throw employees off task, sometimes “magic” happens during nonwork-related Web searches and employees discover information that could be applicable to their jobs, Rainie said.

“There are ways that these tools provide sort of a diversity of sources of information and new insights into phenomena that are unanticipated,” Rainie said. “But that [comes at] the price of being distracted.”

Jenny Jones is a freelance writer living in Northern Virginia.

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