Want to Be More Productive At Work? Then Surf The Web (Really!)

Illustration by Dreamstime
Illustration by Dreamstime

I had a friend who swore by the idea that studies either confirm the obvious or are incorrect.

He would have a field day with the study reported on by The Wall Street Journal that web surfing at work actually makes you more productive:

According to a new study, Web browsing can actually refresh tired workers and enhance their productivity, compared to other activities such as making personal calls, texts or emails, let alone working straight through with no rest at all.

The study, “Impact of Cyberloafing on Psychological Engagement,” by Don J.Q. Chen and Vivien K.G Lim of the National University of Singapore, was presented last week in San Antonio, Texas, at the annual meeting of the Academy of Management, an association of management scholars.”

Is this as counter-intuitive as it feels, or is there something missing from the sensational headline?

Digging deeper

I’m guessing that most managers would say that web browsing is detrimental to productivity in the workplace. And we all know about the myth of multitasking and how switching between web browsing and work is actually quite ineffective. So how do we understand the latest results from this report in the context of everything else we know?

The explanation, it seems, may be more simple than originally imagined. The press release from the Academy of Management goes into a bit more depth about the study:

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 emailing, let alone plodding ahead with little or no respite.

But not all kinds of cyberloafing (as personal Internet use at work is called) are equal in this regard, the research also finds. Personal emailing, for example, is “detrimental to work.”

“Personal emailing 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 email impedes employees’ psychological engagement by affecting their ability to concentrate. Second, when employees reply to these emails, they experience resource depletion, negative affect, and workflow disruption.”

The authors go into the methodology in which they tested students on their ability to complete a simple task before and after a break. One set of people were allowed to do pretty much whatever except browse the Internet and the other set of people were allowed to access the Internet. The people who were allowed to access the Internet performed better.

Similarly, when adults were surveyed about their Internet usage at work and their attitude, the study indicated that those who were able to access the internet during downtime had higher energy levels and were more upbeat than those who didn’t.

A matter of relaxation

It may seem obvious by now but giving employees a full range of ways to relax is the imperative lesson here. The other part of this is encouraging employees to do things in their downtime at work that will actually help them rejuvenate.

I had one boss who had to play basketball every day to stay focused on work. I had another who got unproductive when she missed a lunch.

Although the study points to the fact that Internet browsing is particularly relaxing among more people, it doesn’t mean that individuals won’t want to do certain things to relax during their downtime.

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Of course, good managers think about these things but still worry about how web browsing can be a time drain. What gives?

Time, time, time

In a study environment, it is easy to allocate and monitor the time people use. The conclusions that can be drawn can vary from narrow to far reaching.

In this particular case though, I don’t know if all managers should forget their concerns. Although some companies have limited Internet access all of the time, many employers don’t mind you using the Internet for limited personal use. This would include the casual web browsing the study says is beneficial.

While many of the managers I know don’t have a problem with Internet usage during downtime, they do have a problem with it interfering with work. And the limitation of a study like this is that it can’t tell us how these results would fly in the real world. Where employees aren’t being timed and the rigors of their work aren’t being judged (at least, not with the depth of this study).

Would a person without Internet access spend more time working? Would that work be productive? If a person who browsed the web for 20 minutes be much more productive than a person who took a 10 minute break without it? Does the constant on nature of social networks play into that productivity at all? These are all good questions that won’t be put to rest for long.

One thing I am relieved of is knowing that the time you spent reading this story could actually help you be more productive today at work. That’s a real burden off my shoulders.

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2 Comments on “Want to Be More Productive At Work? Then Surf The Web (Really!)

  1. Hi Lance,

    Well, I can’t speak for anyone else, and I’ve not done any studies on the topic, but if I want a break at work, something I cherish is going to my Google reader and spending a few minutes reading a blog post or two. It feels like a luxury sometimes and refreshes my attitude, not to mention possibly giving me some good ideas to take back to work. Yeah, we all need a break from current thinking patterns, and knowing how prevalent the Internet is in our lives, it’s not surprising that’s where many people turn.

    So, yes, I’m already feeling more productive as a result of reading your article! Thanks for the pick-me-up!

  2. I totally agree I like going to my FB during my 12 hr work day, but is now blocked. really miss it. it was my down time.

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