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Mar 5, 2013

Turns out, people waste time at work on the Internet.

Shocked? Probably not, because it’s likely that most of us do it (at least a little).

According to a research study soon to be published in the academic journal, Computers in Human Behavior, it was estimated that “between 60 and 80 percent of people’s time on the Internet at work has nothing to do with work.” They call this behavior “cyberloafing.”

Since in many of our work environments, employees use a computer for most of the day and have ready access to the Internet, this data point is a little unsettling.

Is this really even a workplace problem?

The title of this study was The effects of sanctions and stigmas on cyberloafing with the seeming purpose of the study to investigate effective ways to thwart cyberloafing at work. Joseph Ugrin, a professor at Kansas State University was one of the study’s authors:

Although organizations benefit from positive aspects of the Internet like improved communication, some have trouble addressing cyberloafing, Ugrin said. Companies spend time, money and effort trying to monitor computer usage, detect what employees are doing online and write policies for employees on acceptable Internet behavior.

Threats of termination and detection mechanisms are effective deterrents against activities such as viewing pornography, managing personal finances and personal shopping, according to the study. However, that may not be enough.

Policies must be enforced to discourage activities like excessive personal emailing and social networking.

“We found that that for young people, it was hard to get them to think that social networking was unacceptable behavior,” Ugrin said. “Just having a policy in place did not change their attitudes or behavior at all. Even when they knew they were being monitored, they still did not care.”

Dangerous assumptions

Here’s the problem: This entire study, beyond the point where they quantified how much work time spent on the Internet wasn’t “work related,” missed the point. It is clear that this was written by researchers and not those tasked with the actual management of people.

This isn’t a policy issue. In fact, “cyberloafing” may not even be a problem that needs to be fixed.

There were some dangerous assumptions made in constructing this survey:

  • Cyberloafing” is an employee behavior issue that needs to be changed or eliminated.
  • Personal time spent on the Internet at work comes at the expense of other work they are putting off, avoiding or skipping at that moment.
  • Allowing personal emails and access to social networks at work is a bad thing.

When you step back form this issue for a moment, the bigger question that becomes obvious is “how do employees have so much free time for “cyberloafing” in the first place?” This study hit my radar thanks to an NBC Today Show segment.

In the piece, they interview people who admit to cyberloafing and the most common response is essentially that they need something to do when they are bored. That sounds a lot like a management failure, not an employee behavior problem.

What to do?

If you suspect that this might be an issue within your organization, resist the urge to create new policies or rules. These represent band-aid solutions that completely ignore the underlying issue — Why do employees have so much time to burn while they are at work?

To effectively address this issue as a leader involves less investigation of employee Internet behavior and more time looking in the mirror. Start with these questions.

  1. Are the expectations for performance clear to both employees and managers? If an employee isn’t clear about what is expected of them and what results they are expected to produce, confusion and indifference can result.
  2. Is there a consequence associated with meeting expectations? In too many organizations, performance management has become benign. If leaders aren’t actively providing feedback and holding people accountable to expectations, then there may as well not be any expectations in place.
  3. Are you spending more time worrying about “how work gets done” rather than “what work gets done?” Business performance boils down to results. And yet, too often we spend our time worrying about what our employees are doing during every minute of the day. If expectations and consequences are clear, and accountability exists, why are you worried about how it gets done?
  4. Are your employees liberated to care about their work? When the conditions above are not met, most employees are hearing a constant stream of communication from management about what they can’t and shouldn’t be doing. When the expectations of performance are clear, then management needs to step back and allow employees some room to determine how they put their own unique signature on their work. The more employees feel like they are influencing how their work gets done, the better their work will become and the less you will need to worry about how they spend their time.
  5. If employees are getting their work done, who cares if they are using the Internet for non-work related purposes (so long as they aren’t illegal or inappropriate for the workplace)? Most every employee in our organizations who is on salary spends some amount of time outside of “work” doing work-related tasks. So, why not allow them some space at “work” to do some personal things? I think that might be what some people mean by work-life balance.

This is another example where management lays blame on employees for behaving in ways that occur because of a lack of leadership. Before writing new policies or buying new employee monitoring software, try applying some leadership.

This was originally published on the Talent Anarchy blog.

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