Cyberloafing: cost or benefit?

When, Trevor Tan, 30, is in the office, he is not always hard at work. In fact, Tan, an editor at a publishing firm, spends a certain amount of time each day surfing the internet for news, travel information, and checking out sites like Facebook. He is quite open about this, saying he is online for personal use “throughout the day.”

“I think it’s fine to use the internet at work for personal stuff,” says Tan candidly.  “As long as you are disciplined and discreet enough to not let it disrupt your work.”

It’s a sentiment shared by many workers who regularly use the internet for their own purposes at work and see nothing wrong with doing so. Indeed, so widespread is the phenomenon of cyberloafing that it spurred Associate Professor Vivien Lim of NUS Business School to research its cause and impact.

Cyberloafing she says, “is the act of employees using their companies’ internet access for personal purposes during work hours,” and the notion that it can actually help relieve employee stress is a key point in her research.

“Employees who are bored or stressed with their work are likely to use cyberloafing as ‘an office toy’ to escape from mundane work,” she says. In such cases, a few minutes of online escapism gives employees a break, allowing them to ‘zone out’ and re-focus their attention on work demands.

“Such cyberloafing is likely to be beneficial as it allows employees to take an innocuous break from what otherwise would be a stressful environment,” she adds.

Engagement

In one study carried out as part of her research, Lim and PhD Student Don Chen recruited a group of undergraduates and gave them a simple – and deliberately dull – 20 minute task: reading a body of text and highlighting every occurrence of the letter “e”.

After that, they were divided into three teams: one was asked to do another simple job for 10 minutes, a second was told they could take a break and do whatever they wanted – apart from surfing the web – while a third group was allowed to go online. They were then all assigned another similar job for a further 10 minutes.

Interestingly, the results showed the surfers were consistently, and by a significant margin, the most productive and effective at the tasks. Moreover they felt lower levels of mental exhaustion, boredom and higher levels of engagement than the other two groups.

If you are afraid that employees might be wasting time at work, utilise more performance based rewards and set deadlines, but give them freedom on how to use their time

Assoc. Prof Vivien Lim,
NUS Business School

In another study with PhD student, Zhu Jinlong, Lim found that individuals who experienced negative emotions in the morning and cyberloafed during the day reported feeling better and experienced more positive emotions at the end of the day. This suggests that cyberloafing does a some salubrious effect on the individuals.

Yet another study of working adults in Singapore, looked at how employees justified cyberloafing and how companies regulated internet usage in the workplace. Unsurprisingly, it shows that editor, Trevor Tan’s view of cyberloafing is quite prevalent; a little is fine as long as it doesn’t disrupt your work.

Mark Lim, 42, a manager in a communications agency, echoes this. He cyberloafs at work for an estimated 45 minutes a day and uses the internet for “every conceivable legal purpose.”

“Cyberloafing is ok as long as the user knows how to limit himself and does not use the internet to the detriment of their workload,” he says, adding that it can also deliver a welcome break from work, “freshening up the mind and the creative processes”.

‘Lost’ productivity

cyber280Taking a break can boost productivityAssociate Professor Vivien Lim says there is a direct correlation between how common a cyberloafing activity is and the seriousness with which it is perceived. Hence, the most common forms of cyberloafing include browsing the internet for news, entertainment and sports, while less common cyberloafing activities include shopping and surfing pornography.

Employers of course may view cyberloafing in a somewhat different light, with some undoubtedly perceiving the hours “lost” through non-work related surfing as lost potential productivity, and hence lost value. But while copyright violation or the threat of viruses and hackers infiltrating company networks may be a concern, the “lost productivity” argument does not necessarily follow.

Lim says that societal and organisational culture play a significant role in affecting cyberloafing, with attitudes among employers’ and employees’ varying widely around the world. Lim cites a recent survey by global tech firm Cisco, which noted young job seekers in countries such as China, Brazil, India and Mexico as citing “internet freedom” at work as an important factor in their decision to join a company.

“Indeed,” she says, “recognising that IT restrictions may send workers looking for ‘freer’ workplaces, some employers actually allow for more internet freedom to entice young people to join their companies.”

Meanwhile, in Singapore, many firms seem to turn a blind eye, with approximately 45 per cent of survey respondents  reporting that their organisations had implemented policies on internet usage. That’s relatively low compared to the US, where 87 per cent of companies surveyed indicated that they had formal internet usage policies.

Self-policing

In Singapore the local offices of Google and Yahoo! – two companies who, it might be argued, actually count on cyberloafers as a key component of their market – said they themselves do not have any policies governing internet usage at work either. Yahoo! said that the only policies they had in this area dealt with security issues, such as protection of personal data and identity theft.

ThinkAloud4Other firms prefer to let employees police themselves, taking the view that those perceived as spending too much time surfing will feel the weight of peer pressure to change their ways if they are not pulling their weight as a member of the team.

Associate Professor Lim also points out that for many jobs now, access to the internet is regarded as a useful tool for generating new ideas and inspiration. As a rule of thumb, she says, blanket bans or use of expensive internet monitoring systems are likely to be counterproductive, advising companies to instead develop ‘acceptable use’ policies that are clearly communicated to all staff.

“Another way to look at this problem would be to eliminate the ‘need’ to regulate altogether”, she says.Research has shown  that employees tend to view regulations negatively and a source of resentment towards employers.

“If you are afraid that employees might be wasting time at work, utilise more performance based rewards and set deadlines, but give them freedom on how to use their time,” she adds.

“Employ staff who are motivated, like the work they do and enjoy working for the company; they will be less likely to ‘steal’ time and put their companies at risk for illegal internet activities.”

Boundaries blurred

Indeed, negative motivations also play a big part in why employees feel justified in cyberloafing,  fuelling the time spent doing so, Lim says. One common reason cited is revenge for perceived bad treatment by an employer, with employees who feel underappreciated, underpaid or overworked sometimes viewing cyberloafing as a way to even the score.

One survey respondent speaks for many, saying: “I am currently underpaid for the number of hours I need to work. Hence, the company should not mind if I use the Internet for non-work related purpose while in office as I hardly have personal time at home.”

Ultimately though, the predominant underlying condition that has fed the proliferation of cyberloafing has got to be that ‘everyone is doing it, so it must be ok.’ And with technology making employees contactable 24/7, many understandably feel that boundaries between work and non-work time are blurred beyond distinction.

Plenty of after office hours are spent working, so spending some official work time catching up on personal things is a reasonable, and common justification.

So while cyberloafing is definitely a trend, it is debatable whether it’s a threat.

Based on the findings of Lim’s research thus far, as an a inevitable aspect of modern working life rather than being a drain on productivity cyberloafing may actually produce more benefits than might initially appear. So that bit of social networking, online gaming, checking recipes or potential holiday destinations is unlikely to hurt, as long as you’re getting your job done.

In fact, in the right doses, it might even help.

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