The Internet at Work: Distraction or Productivity Tool?

November 29, 2008 07:59 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
The Internet’s myriad routes to procrastination can sap productivity in the workplace. Some say it's all in the psyschology of the worker, and others prefer to play up the Internet's strengths.

Is The Internet a Waste Of Time?

With sites like Facebook and Twitter booming, the world's workforce may find it increasingly hard to avoid such alleged time wasters while at the office. Often, leisurely browsing can simply be categorized as procrastination, according to researcher Jennifer Lavoie, who conducted a study earlier this year on online procrastination. Psychology Today blogger Timothy A. Pychyl wrote that in that study, "50.7% of the respondents reported frequent Internet procrastination, and respondents spent 47% of on-line time procrastinating."

But the debate over the Internet's role in workplace productivity and procrastination remains divided, with plenty of evidence showing it's not as damaging as some think; for many workers and businesses, social networking sites are an important component of contact building, communication and information gathering, MSNBC notes. Furthermore, sites like Lifehacker devote time to making online tasks shorter and easier for everyone.

Background: Productivity inspired by online games

Management consultants and employers are looking for ways to harness the skills developed in online team games, such as World of Warcraft, for use in the workplace. To that end, Dr. Byron Reeves of Stanford University founded the company Seriosity, which has worked with five or six Fortune 500 companies to harness the skills honed by those game mechanics, according to the BBC.

Entellium produces software that shows employees how they are performing in the context of their own goals and the output of their colleagues; Seriosity has produced e-mail software called Attent that creates a virtual currency spent when e-mails are sent. Attent is designed to cut down on excessive intra-office communications. Both companies found inspiration from Internet gaming and are profiled by the New York Times.

Opinion & Analysis: Caution and skepticism about Web productivity

“Most entrepreneurs find that their employees’ productivity has increased since they shifted major business functions online,” writes BusinessWeek. A smart employer will have “built in some tolerance” for personal computer use, which is only fair considering how technology has also led to employees doing more work outside of office hours, says journalist Karen E. Klein. The key is to limit that personal computer time, just as you would personal phone calls, Klein advises a concerned reader.
Some are not so optimistic about Web use at work. In an article titled “Workplace Web use: Give ’em an inch …,” Douglas Schweitzer argues that “statistics show that worldwide corporations lose billions” from reduced productivity as a result of the under-the-radar Web use that goes on in the office. But “far more frightening,” writes Schweitzer, “than even the loss of productivity and revenue from Internet misuse” is the legal liability of employers when members of the workforce download inappropriate or offensive material.

“Everybody who really understands the Blackberry calls it a Crackberry,” writes British novelist Andrew O’Hagan, “which underestimates its addictive properties. At least with crack you get to tilt your head back between puffs, or so my mother tells me.” O’Hagan presents a humorous take on our culture of non-stop availability, reasoning that once “your average working stiff was always looking for ways to be out of contact,” but today “to fail to answer your mobile phone, or to turn it off completely, is merely to announce that you are deep in the throes of a secret life.”

Reference: Get productive and eliminate distractors

Management consultant Ken Siegel believes that e-mail has become “the perfect way to avoid solving problems,” according to the Christian Science Monitor. He promotes the “no e-mail Friday” policy adopted by a number of businesses in the Los Angeles area, arguing that escaping from endless e-mail is a positive boost to the workplace.
The multitasking that modern online technology makes possible is best curbed by the responsible employee, according to a New York Times article published in 2007. The Times covers research that draws some simple conclusions about Internet use: “Check e-mail messages once an hour, at most. Listening to soothing background music while studying may improve concentration. But other distractions—most songs with lyrics, instant messaging, television shows—hamper performance.”
The solution to procrastination, according to the blog secretGeek, is to block pesky Web sites like Facebook, as many employers have taken to doing. SecretGeek offers instructions on how to do it yourself on a PC.
For Mac users, blogger Scott Carney of Trailing Technology recommends the shareware program Freedom, which will schedule random Internet outages on your computer so you'll be forced to use more productive programs like Microsoft Word when they occur.

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