Internet Usage at Work is a Good Thing

Finally, there’s a study that shows empirically what most of us have known all along: personal Internet usage at work actually boosts employee productivity.

The study was conducted by Dr. Brent Coker from the Department of Management and Marketing at the University of Melbourne and you can read about it here:

According to Coker’s research:

“People who do surf the Internet for fun at work - within a reasonable limit of less than 20% of their total time in the office - are more productive by about 9% than those who don’t.”

It’s About More Than Just Productivity

But it’s not just about productivity, as Specht points out, it’s also about trusting and respecting your employees.

I personally dislike companies that prohibit what Coker calls Workplace Internet Leisure Browsing (WILB) with the justification that when you’re at work, you should be doing nothing but work. That’s just silly because it’s a completely unrealistic notion of what work is. Work is a subset of life, not the other way round. So you can’t exactly ignore the rest of your life – or, indeed, the rest of the world – while you’re at work.

[There are, of course, exceptions to this rule. It’s okay to apply principles of Taylorism to, say, when you’re working in the kitchen at McDonalds. It’s just that you shouldn’t extend those principles to when your employees are not doing those specific kinds of tasks.]

The problem with a lot of companies is that, while they understand this basic principle (i.e. that there is life outside of work, even between the hours of 9am and 5pm), they aren’t tech-savvy enough to see that this also applies to using the Internet. Companies will, for example, do things like allow flexible working hours so you can do your banking during your lunch hour or go as far as to provide coffee machines and televisions in their kitchens and lounges so you can take a really good break during the work day. And yet, these same companies will block the use of webmail services, social networking sites, and online video sites which, to people like me, are pretty much the virtual equivalent of the kitchen and lounge (and sometimes the preferred equivalent).

So What’s the Problem?

Part of the problem, as has been pointed out in the past, is the generational disconnect between the Baby Boomers, Gen-X, and Gen-Y. That is, there exist numerous members of older generations who don’t understand that, for some members of the younger generation, a good work break could be eight minutes of e-mailing and checking on your social networks, four minutes of going through photos of your newborn niece, and three minutes of watching the latest viral video that’s making the rounds. And this disconnect is understandable. However it is then the job of middle managers to convince senior managers that this kind of personal Internet usage is actually okay.

Another part of the problem are the reports written by generally Internet-clueless analysts on how much companies are “losing” by letting employees access social media or online video sites during work hours. What tends to happen is this calculation:

  • Think of an average employee who earns 50k a year; that’s $25 an hour.
  • If this person spends, on average, 30 minutes a day on Facebook and Gmail. That translates to $12.50 per day “lost”.
  • So, for the 250 days a year that this person works, the company is “losing” $3,125.
  • If this company had 400 employees, the company would be losing 1.25 million dollars per year on employees accessing webmail and social networking sites.

Company executives look at this calculation and exclaim: “What?! We’re paying our employees $1.25m to access Facebook and Gmail! Block both those sites!”

The problem, of course, is that while the calculation is essentially correct, the reasoning behind it is flawed. The reasoning being that you are paying your average employee exactly 41.6c per minute to work for you and that every minute this employee does something other than work your money is being wasted. Now if this person was working on an assembly line, your loss-per-minute-not-worked calculation would be valid. But for every other employee, it’s not.

Why is it not valid? Because your employee is human – who has human wants and needs – and it is unreasonable to treat this person like a work-producing automaton upon whom you can do this kind of dehumanising calculation.

To Conclude

My point, then, is that studies like Coker’s are really useful because they empirically demonstrate that you can’t blindly apply principles of scientific management (i.e. Taylorism) across an entire organization.

And because these studies come from a business department of a large and well-respected university – and they use terms that businesses understand (specifically, ‘productivity’) – they will probably do some good.

If nothing else, reports like this tend to make their way into business magazines and give executives something to think about. This particular study may not get companies to unblock access to webmail services and social media sites, but it’s a start.

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P.S. What’s almost funny are the companies that are so completely disconnected for what’s going on online that they don’t even know what Facebook is and therefore don’t have a policy on whether they should block it or not!