Surfing toward Productivity?

New research on employees' Internet habits shows that non-work-related web surfing may actually be good for both their health and productivity.

Thursday, August 14, 2014
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Attention managers: Allowing employees to surf the Internet during work may improve their health and productivity.

Those are the findings of a University of Cincinnati study conducted last year that examined online work breaks -- everything from what prompts people to log online to short-term effects. Researchers conducted extensive interviews with 33 professionals representing a variety of industries, occupations and ages, says Sung Doo Kim, a researcher and doctoral candidate in the Carl H. Lindner College of Business at UC, who led the study. According to the survey's results, online breaks seem to do more good than harm.

Kim says some of the triggers of online work breaks included boredom, family or personal demands, work scenarios leading to anger or frustration, and the need to recover from stressful or intense work situations. He adds that some employees use technology to also track the whereabouts and safety of their children. By doing so, he says they're no longer worried about them and become more engaged at work.

However, employees holding desk jobs or those using computers for extended periods of time were "less likely to find breaks rejuvenating," than those employed in jobs that involved physical activity or face-to-face interactions, based on the findings.

"Using technology is really not [any] different than traditional breaks like drinking coffee, talking a walk or stretching," Kim says, adding that some employees manage their personal lives through technology. "At this point, management needs to be a little bit more open to this, loosen up and [develop] a policy that's constantly updated [as technology evolves]."

The survey is timely considering that by 2020, Gen Y or millennials (people born between 1980 and 2000) will compose at least 50 percent of the global workforce, according to PwC's 14th Annual Global CEO Survey. "Millennials' use of technology clearly sets them apart . . . . This is the first generation to enter the workplace with a better grasp of a key business tool than more senior workers," states the report.

Millennials are digital natives who have grown up with laptops, smart phones, apps and social media, so the need to stay continuously connected is especially important for them, says Mark Royal, senior principal at the Hay Group in Chicago.

"The line between work and personal life is increasingly blurring," he says. "The freedom that organizations give employees to take breaks and address personal concerns through online resources can be productive if managed appropriately."

Royal says HR needs to build a culture that focuses on trust and outcomes. Forget micromanaging as long as employees meet deadlines, are productive and perform expected job tasks. Who cares if employees log online for personal reasons if their work meets or exceeds performance objectives?

HR can play an important role in equipping managers with the perspective and tools needed to create such a culture and manage employees accordingly. By focusing on impact rather than careful management of employee activity, he says, organizations will create a more balanced and healthier work environment.

Although HR needs to establish some boundaries on what employees can and can't do online, he says they will be hard pressed to try to cut off or limit online activity.

"It will become particularly problematic to try to choke off that level of connectivity with web resources for a generation that's come to expect it as almost a birth right," Royal says. "This topic isn't going to go away. Organizations can't look away. The best organizations will embrace technology and leverage it for its benefit and minimize the risks."

Paul Rubenstein, a New York-based partner in talent solutions and strategies at Aon Hewitt, says placing restrictions on Internet usage is really no different than what employers did years ago -- handing out long-distance access codes to only a select group of employees. Employers, he says, were fearful that if everyone knew the code, they would abuse it, which would also be a "big productivity killer."

However, that never proved to be the case, he says, adding that most employers now believe it's a better solution to grant employees lots of freedom and authority to make good choices versus creating a highly restrictive workplace.

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"You can't put the genie back in the bottle and start restricting the way people spend their time at work (regarding) the Internet," he says. "Everybody has a personal device . . . so whatever you restrict on one device, they'll just do on another."

He believes the survey is a good start but needed to dig a little deeper by measuring the productivity of employees who log online during work for personal reasons, how online access influences mental wellness, and if it negates feelings of information overload. Also, what's the cumulative effect of employees checking in with their family four times a day? Is the separation between work and home limiting their ability to focus on a particular work task, not be as creative with solutions, or have other negative effects?

Rubenstein believes that employees are suffering from information overload and that access to an overwhelming amount of information has gone from being a privilege to a burden.

"What we really need to do is help employees deal with an overwhelming amount of content," says Rubenstein, pointing to information gleaned from the web, emails, texts and posts on social media sites. "All of these different (communications) come at you and are stressors that you're compelled to respond to."

Years ago, he says, employees were perfectly fine waiting until they came home from work to find out about their family's activities. Now, he says, people think they need to know everything about their child's or spouse's actions, like what they ate for lunch.

He compares going online to ease stress to smoking a cigarette. Next thing you know, he says, you're hooked and smoking a pack a day.

"The need to constantly check in and get more information can actually create more stress," says Rubenstein.  "If you focus on everything, can you focus on anything?"

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