Workers Are More Productive When Surfing the Web

In today's uncertain economic climate, many are looking over their shoulders, wondering if they're next on the list to get sacked as their employers continue to downsize. So not only are workers typically on their best behavior at work these days, but they're also looking for an edge that can make them even more productive, and therefore that much more valuable and seemingly irreplaceable. In a stroke of utter irony, a researcher from the University of Melbourne in Australia is claiming that workers' productivity can be improved by engaging in a behavior that many thought could actually get them fired: slacking off on the Internet during work hours.

Dr. Brent Coker, from the University of Melbourne's Department of Management and Marketing, conducted a study of the behavior of 300 workers. He found that about 70-percent of these workers, engaged in what he calls "Workplace Internet Leisure Browsing" (WILB), or what we might just call surfing the Internet for fun. The workers who engaged in WILB were typically doing activities such as searching for product information, reading news, playing online games, or watching videos. Dr. Coker found that as long as WILB occupied less than 20-percent of "their total time in the office," these workers were roughly 9-percent more productive than the workers who didn't engage in WILB.

Dr. Coker chalks this up to the power of the mental break; similar to the momentary mental distraction many experience when they take coffee or smoking breaks:

"People need to zone out for a bit to get back their concentration. Think back to when you were in class listening to a lecture - after about 20 minutes your concentration probably went right down, yet after a break your concentration was restored. It's the same in the work place. Short and unobtrusive breaks, such as a quick surf of the internet, enables the mind to rest itself, leading to a higher total net concentration for a days work, and as a result, increased productivity."

Dr. Coker points out the further irony of his findings:

"Firms spend millions on software to block their employees from watching videos on YouTube, using social networking sites like Facebook or shopping online under the pretense that it costs millions in lost productivity, however that's not always the case."

That's not to say, however, that engaging in WILB is for everybody. If a worker is not capable of conducting this non-work Internet time in moderation, then it can, obviously, interfere with the worker's productivity. Dr. Coker claims:

"Approximately 14% of internet users in Australia show signs of Internet Addiction - they don’t take breaks at appropriate times, they spend more than a 'normal' amount of time online, and can get irritable if they are interrupted while surfing."

Last July, AOL and Beta Research released the results of study that indicated that 46-percent of e-mail users claim to be "addicted" to e-mail. These users were not using a true clinical or dictionary definition of addiction, but were providing an emotional response based on their own self-perceptions. Responding to the audible ding of a new e-mail message in your inbox, like one of Ivan Pavlov's salivating dogs, is obviously not the same thing as spending a few minutes on YouTube; but it gives some insight into the mentality and behavior of workers who, at least on a conscious level, are willing to admit that they lack some self control. Similarly, the founder of a Swedish Youth Group that supports troubled teens, made a bold claim a few months ago that World of Warcraft can be highly addictive.

But assuming that you have the self control to parcel out your WILB time in moderation and do it only at appropriate times, then perhaps you too can be 9-percent more productive at work. The question is, however, will your employers feel the same way?