Cause of worker unproductivity is Web surfing

The studies seem to agree on this one. The No. 1 cause of worker unproductivity is Web surfing. But rather than deal with it, most employers I know turn their heads the other way and rely on the professionalism of their employees to keep things in check.

But if your company does play Internet traffic cop, be aware there is a right way and a wrong way to get people off the digital drug.

In a new working paper called Temptation at Work, Harvard Business School professor Marco Piovesan and colleagues Alessandro Bucciol and Daniel Houser point to one common practice as an example of the wrong way to do it. This is when employers ban Web surfing until after work hours.

The problem? Workers who are asked to use willpower to resist temptation are more likely to be less productive and make more mistakes in subsequent tasks. Employers would be better off either turning off outside Web service completely, or allowing specific times of the day for personal surfing, they write.

“Employers should not prohibit the Internet and yet leave it available. Instead, employers should either remove it entirely or, when doing this is impractical, allow employees a certain amount of time — maybe even as often as several minutes per hour — for personal Internet activity. Perhaps lunch-breaks can be somewhat shortened to accommodate “surf-time”. Alternatively, employers might consider allowing regular Internet breaks, in the same way that many currently accommodate short but not infrequent cigarette or coffee breaks.”

Hey, are you reading this at work?

By Sean Silverthorne | March 11, 2011

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1 comment:

Dan said...

That's an interesting article. It does show that being forced to resist intense temptation (a large "Start Video" button constantly on your screen, and people all around you laughing) can be detrimental to work productivity. Their suggestions seemed balanced and well thought out.

Also interesting to note, some studies have demonstrated that Web Surfing at work is actually a morale booster, and improves overall productivity. For example:

If we look at the strengths of both articles, we can agree however, that Internet Addiction is certainly a problem for some workers (insofar as being addicted would constitute a constant temptation.)

Being a Systems Administrator, I have had to deal with Internet Addicted individuals, as well as investigating pornography found on computers, P2P network activity, virus and worm infestations, etc. I have been at companies that are more lax about personal Internet time than I think is appropriate, and I have been at companies that are too draconian (all internet activity is blocked except to companies that are approved by managers for work-relatedness.)

The best balance I have found is to:
1.) Block known porn and malware domains.
2.) Company policy: computers are for work activity, some personal use may be tolerated.*
3.) Explain to all users that all internet activity is logged, and items deleted may still be retained by the company.
4.) Have an open work area, where people cannot hide their monitors from people walking by their work areas.

* One of the best HR policies regarding personal use of computers, that I have encountered, states:
Telephone and Computer Use Policy
The Company understands that when employees work during the week it is occasionally necessary to conduct personal business during office hours. However, employees should limit their personal use of the telephone and computer during office hours. Talk to your manager if you have any questions as to how much is too much time. Because telephone and e-mail systems are provided by the Company at its expense for business use, all messages sent by or received on those systems are company documents. The Company reserves the right to access and to disclose the messages that you send or receive on the voice mail or e-mail systems. Employees should also be aware that “deleted” messages from the computer screen may not actually be deleted from the e-mail system. Employees who abuse this policy are subject to disciplinary procedures up to and including discharge.

For most employees, Internet activity isn't a problem. The above suggestions should keep any issues to a minimum while allowing freedom for responsible employees, and records to deal with the few employees who do abuse the companies computer system.