Have you ever checked your private emails or social media at work? While broadband and social media have revolutionised the lives and habits of many of us, an increasing number of managers now fear that their employees are wasting too much time at work – checking up on news, perusing the most inane details from the lives of ‘friends’, and sharing their favourite ‘grumpy cat’ memes…
The information revolution heralded by Web 2.0 has been often been described as a boon to mankind, allowing us to share information and knowledge effortlessly and at incredibly low cost, to find and contact long-lost family and friends, and even to organise uprisings against oppressive regimes.
In the environment of our day-jobs, however, can Workplace Internet Leisure Browsing (WILB) be a positive phenomenon, ultimately contributing to bottom lines and reducing employee turnover? Or does it lure employees into wasting valuable time that is not their own?
A procrastinator’s paradise
According to research from the University of Melbourne, 70 per cent of people who use the internet for work engage in WILB. It’s a seemingly impossible situation for companies – allowing free use of company hardware for checking facebook can fritter away work time, leaving tasks undone and labour costs rocketing.
Employees can even cause material damage to the company by disclosing company information, or by inadvertently downloading malware to company servers through clicking on suspect links. On the other hand, blackouts or Orwellian monitoring programmes can send morale and motivation through the floor, spurring workers to seek employment in less draconian environments.
According to Urban Schrott, a cybercrime analyst with Safetica Ireland & UK, productivity losses associated with social media can be huge, especially if the use is addictive in nature. Some studies put the losses to the American economy from on-the-job social media use at $650 billion (480 billion euro) annually. Schrott says that the introduction of official company internet use policies can help reduce leisure browsing, but can never eliminate it.
Surfing toward productivity gains
While WILB is a practice judged harshly by management, some researchers claim that it may actually help enhance productivity.
Dr Brent Coker, from the Department of Management and Marketing at the University of Melbourne, says that workers who engage in WILB are more productive than those who don’t.
“People who do surf the internet for fun at work – within a reasonable limit of less than 20 per cent of their total time in the office – are more productive by about 9 per cent than those who don’t,” he says.
“Firms spend millions on software to block their employees from watching videos on YouTube, using social networking sites like facebook or shopping online under the pretence that it costs millions in lost productivity; however, that’s not always the case.”
Croker and his team say that our ability to concentrate is imperfect – that we need to take short breaks to get back our concentration, like drifting off during science class in school.
“It’s the same in the workplace. Short and unobtrusive breaks, such as a quick surf of the internet, enables the mind to rest itself, leading to a higher total net concentration for a day’s work, and as a result, increased productivity,” says Croker.
Other researchers claim that social media users are typically both more tech-savvy and more sociable than non-users, and that social media can boost so-called ‘social capital’ – the value to the firm that is encapsulated in the quality of employee relationships. Some tech companies even consciously invest in measures to promote social capital, and thus knowledge capital, such as wider staircases so workers can stop to chat for a minute in passing without causing traffic jams. Being able to swap and share knowledge, ask who knows what, and make new contacts easily can be a boon for knowledge capital, and give a company the edge in today’s knowledge-based economy. Social media can enhance this process further.
Everything in moderation
Urban Schrott believes companies should avoid draconian measures, but should still monitor employee behaviour. To avoid data breaches, malware attacks and lost productivity through excessive facebooking, his team at Safetica advise companies to find a solution that works for them while still keeping employees happy.
Monitoring the amount of WILB is important, says Schrott, as is communicating to employees that monitoring is software-based, which will help ease any feelings that they are being spied on. He advises against limiting access unless efficiency is being impinged upon and targets are not being met, which can help avoid de-motivation.
If embracing an open policy, it can also be helpful to instruct employees in anti-malware etiquette, such as what links not to click on, and how to avoid phishing attacks. Schrott also advises companies to ensure that even if employees decide to disregard the rules, company data and computer infrastructure cannot be compromised by a chance infection or data breach.
*Facebook photo from shutterstock.com