The Internet and Employee Productivity

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New research from Deloitte and Google found that flexible approaches to technology contributed to staff satisfaction, retention and collaboration; when staff were happy with workplace IT, they were one-third less likely to leave their job than those who were dissatisfied.

Now Woolworths and Air New Zealand have established “bring your own device” policies to allow staff to use their own technology while still ensuring security.

National University of Singapore researchers found in 2011 that “browsing the Internet serves an important restorative function,” more so than texting, emailing or working without breaks.

Consider this excerpt from “In Praise of Laziness,” which appeared in The Economist last month:

The Dutch seem to believe that an excess of meetings is the biggest devourer of time: they talk of vergaderziekte, “meeting sickness”. However, a study last year by the McKinsey Global Institute suggests that it is e-mails: it found that highly skilled office workers spend more than a quarter of each working day writing and responding to them.

 

Which of these banes of modern business life is worse remains open to debate. But what is clear is that office workers are on a treadmill of pointless activity. Managers allow meetings to drag on for hours. Workers generate e-mails because it requires little effort and no thought. An entire management industry exists to spin the treadmill ever faster.

In the Singaporean study, participants in a “web-surfing” group were significantly more productive than participants from control and “rest-break” groups, and reported lower levels of boredom and mental exhaustion, and higher levels of engagement.

Why? People “usually choose to visit only the sites that they like—it’s like going for a coffee or snack break. Breaks of such nature are pleasurable, rejuvenating the Web surfer,” wrote one of the study’s researchers, Vivien K.G Lim, in an email to Rachel Emma Silverman of the Wall Street Journal.

Similarly, Harvard Business School worker-productivity researcher, Teresa Amabile, believes that daily tasks like phone calls, emails and meetings deplete the creative energy that businesses need to innovate. Asking too much of employees lowers engagement, productivity and creativity. Less is more.

Social psychology tells us that using willpower to delay gratification can detrimentally impact performance on subsequent tasks due to additional energy exertion. So perhaps it isn’t surprising that researchers trying to understand how energy is depleted and replenished found recently that when employees are told not to use the Internet for personal use, the temptation requires so much willpower to resist that worker productivity decreases. Here again, the findings suggest that employers should not prohibit the Internet for personal use. Alternatives would be to either remove the Internet completely or give employees Internet breaks.

Does the ability to engage in leisure activities during work downtime improve productivity, or does it act as a distraction? Do managers and employees make accurate assumptions about and estimates of employees’ productivity? Should businesses encourage employees to take breaks and let them surf the Internet?

Many of these questions will be revisited by Harvard doctoral student Andrew Brodsky in his upcoming study that looks at how Internet access at work affects employee productivity and job satisfaction. You can write to Andrew Brodsky at abrodsky@hbs.edu if you think your company may be interested in pursuing a field study on the Internet and employee productivity. Let us know in the comments what you think about how social media and Internet use affect creativity and productivity at work.

 

 

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