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Internet browsing at work? It's a pause that refreshes workers and enhances their productivity, new research finds

August 1, 2011

For more information, contact: Benjamin Haimowitz, HHaimowitz@aol.com

August 2011
Employees' browsing the Internet may be a headache to some employers, but browsing is a pause that refreshes workers and enhances their productivity -- more so than making phone calls or text-messaging friends or e-mailing, let alone plodding ahead with little or no respite.
 
According to a research report to be presented at the annual meeting of the Academy of Management (San Antonio, August 14-16), "browsing the Internet serves an important restorative function."
 
But not all kinds of cyberloafing (as personal Internet use at work is called) are equal in this regard, the research also finds. Personal e-mailing, for example, is "detrimental to work."
 
"Personal e-mailing puts employees in a double bind," conclude the report's authors, Don J. Q. Chen and Vivien K. G. Lim of the National University of Singapore. "First, the compelling need to reply to a received e-mail impedes employees' psychological engagement by affecting their ability to concentrate. Second, when employees reply to these e-mails, they experience resource depletion, negative affect, and workflow disruption."
 
The mixed outcomes of cyberloafing notwithstanding, Chen and Lim warn employers against excessive monitoring and surveillance of workers' Internet access. "Rather than reducing cyberloafing, excessive monitoring increases its frequency, as employees invariably view such policies as a form of mistrust that the company has in them. In view of this, managers must recognize that blanket policies that prohibit all forms of personal Web usage are ineffective, and excessive monitoring is likely to be counterproductive. Instead, limited amount of personal Web use should be allowed, since it has salubrious impact on employees' productivity."
 
The conclusions of the new report emerge from two separate studies, one an experiment with undergraduate management students and the other a survey of working adults.
 
In the student experiment, 96 participants were randomly assigned to one of three groups -- a control group, a rest-break group, and a browsing-the-Internet group. All subjects were first assigned to spend 20 minutes highlighting as many letter e's as they could find in a text of 3,500 words. At the conclusion of this exercise, subjects spent 10 minutes in one of three ways: the control group was assigned a filler task that involved bundling sticks into groups of fives; the rest-break group was free to do anything they wanted except to use the Internet (their activities included visiting the washroom, making phone calls, and text-messaging friends); and the third group was allowed 10 minutes to browse pre-selected Web sites including those offering news, social networking, online gaming, entertainment, and hobby-related activities.
 
Finally, all participants were instructed to spend 10 minutes highlighting as many letter a's as they could find in 2,000 words of text, this final assignment serving as a proxy for productivity. And, before being dismissed, the subjects were asked to complete a post-experimental questionnaire that measured their levels of mental exhaustion, boredom, and psychological engagement.
 
Chen and Lim report that participants in the Internet-browsing group were significantly more productive than those in the other two groups, highlighting a mean of 316 letter a's, compared to 272 for the rest-break group and 227 for the control group; in other words, the Internet browsers were 16% more productive than the rest-break group and 39% more productive than the control group. In addition, compared to both of the other groups, the browsers reported significantly lower levels of mental exhaustion and boredom and significantly higher levels psychological engagement.
 
In the second study, randomly selected alumni of a business school were surveyed by mail about their activities at work -- specifically the amount of Internet browsing and e-mailing they did, their psychological engagement with their work, and their positive and negative affect, or mental state, immediately after cyberloafing. One hundred ninety-one alumni, about one third of those solicited, mailed in surveys, which revealed the following:
 
-- Amount of Internet browsing is significantly and positively related to such upbeat mental states as excited,  interested, alert, and active, and inversely related to such negative mental states as distressed, fearful, hostile, and jittery.
 
-- Amount of e-mailing activity, in distinct contrast, is significantly related to negative mental states but not to upbeat ones.
 
Thus do the authors conclude that Internet browsing enhances psychological engagement with work -- and possibly job creativity as well -- whereas e-mails "negatively affect employees' ability to concentrate on work."
 
In conclusion, Chen and Lim urge companies to "strike a middle ground between work and cyberloafing... allow[ing] for personal Web usage as long as it is in line with business objectives. In light of this study, an acceptable Internet use policy would allow for periodic Web browsing while limiting the access to personal e-mails."
 

The report, entitled "Impact of Cyberloafing on Psychological Engagement," will be as among several thousand research presentations at the Academy of Management annual meeting, to be held in San Antonio from August 14th to 16th.  Founded in 1936, the Academy is the largest organization in the world devoted to management research and teaching. It has more than 19,000 members in 102 countries, including about 11,000 in the United States. This year's annual meeting will draw more than 9,000 scholars and practitioners for sessions on a host of subjects relating to business strategy, corporate organization and investment, the workplace, technology development, and other management-related topics.

Media Coverage:
ABC News. Web surfing makes for happier, more productive workers. (Wednesday, August 24, 2011).
BNET.COM. Why cyberloafing is good for you -- and for your boss. (Thursday, September 01, 2011).
CBS Moneywatch. Are Web surfers better employees?. (Monday, August 22, 2011).
CBS News. Goofing-off online increases productivity at work. (Monday, August 22, 2011).
Chicago Tribune. Stop Shopping. Read This. (Friday, November 25, 2011).
Daily Mail (UK). Bad news for bosses, as study finds that browsing the Internet at work is good for business. (Tuesday, August 23, 2011).
Geek.com. Surfing the Web at work actually makes you more productive. (Tuesday, August 23, 2011).
Geekosystem. New study suggests wasting time online boosts productivity. (Thursday, August 18, 2011).
hbr.com. A Web break makes people more productive. (Monday, August 22, 2011).
Huffington Post. "Cyberloafing" at work boosts productivity, researchers find. (Tuesday, August 16, 2011).
Huffington Post. Why playing Angry Birds at work could boost the bottom line. (Monday, September 12, 2011).
Inc.com. The easiest way ever to boost your productivity. (Friday, August 19, 2011).
Internet Broadcasting. Study: "Cyberloafing" boosts productivity. (Wednesday, August 17, 2011).
KipReport (Dubai). Cyberloafing -- all work and no Web browsing makes Jack a dull boy. (Tuesday, August 23, 2011).
LAT.com (Los Angeles Times). Best study ever: Wasting time online boosts worker productivity. (Wednesday, August 17, 2011).
Mashable. Why CEOs should allow Facebook iin the workplace. (Wednesday, April 11, 2012).
MSNBC. Web surfing at work is "restorative," researchers say. (Monday, August 22, 2011).
PCMag.com (PC Magazine). Does surfing the Internet make you a better worker?. (Tuesday, August 23, 2011).
PCWorld.com (PC World). Why employees should surf the Web at work. (Monday, August 29, 2011).
SiliconIndia.com. Web surfing at work can make you a better employee. (Tuesday, August 23, 2011).
Social Barrel. Use of Internet at work increases productivity, revals a study about cyberloafing. (Monday, September 12, 2011).
The Globe & Mail. The loaf that refreshes. (Thursday, August 18, 2011).
The Globe & Mail. Web surfing a boon to producivity, study shows. (Wednesday, August 17, 2011).
The Wall Street Journal. Web Surfing Helps at Work, Study Says. (Monday, August 22, 2011).
TodayOnline (Singapore). Surfing Web may boost proctivity: NUS study. (Wednesday, August 24, 2011).
United Press International. Cyberloafing, the pause that refreshes. Just don't check e-mail. (Sunday, August 14, 2011).

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