Consumer Corner: Cyberloafing, the pause that refreshes. Just don't check e-mail

By MARCELLA S. KREITER  |  Aug. 14, 2011 at 4:00 AM
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CHICAGO, Aug. 14 (UPI) -- Afraid Big Brother is looking over your shoulder at work and tracking what your computer is used for? Turns out company efforts to keep employees from cyberloafing may actually reduce productivity.

Don J.Q. Chen and Vivien K.G. Lim of the National University of Singapore found Web surfing actually refreshes workers, making them more productive.

However, not all personal Web access is equal.

"Personal e-mailing puts employees in a double bind," the researchers said in a release.

"First, the compelling need to reply to a received e-mail impedes employees' psychological engagement by affecting their ability to concentrate. Second, when employees reply to these e-mails, they experience resource depletion, negative affect and workflow disruption."

The researchers conducted two experiments involving 96 participants. In the first, subjects were divided into three groups: a control group, a rest-break group and a browsing group. They were told to highlight the letter "e" in a 3,500-word text. Then the control group was told to bundle sticks in groups of five, the rest group was told to do anything members wanted except surf and the browing group was told to browse pre-selected Web sites, including gaming and social networking sites. Each group had 10 minutes.

Then the participants were told to highlight the letter "a" in a 2,000-word text and fill in a questionnaire measuring their levels of mental exhaustion, boredom and psychological engagement.

The researchers found the Internet browsers found significantly more "a's," 316, compared with 262 for the rest-break group and 227 for the bundlers, making them 16 percent and 39 percent more productive than their cohorts, respectively. The browsers also were less mentally exhausted and bored, and more psychologically engaged.

The second experiment involved surveying business school alumni by mail about their work activity. The researchers received 191 responses -- about a 33 percent response rate. The answers indicated browsing lifted workers' moods and kept them more alert, while answering e-mail was significantly related to negative mental states.

The research indicated efforts to crack down on personal computer use at work actually increased such activity and increased distrust among workers.

"In view of this, managers must recognize that blanket policies that prohibit all forms of personal Web usage are ineffective, and excessive monitoring is likely to be counterproductive," the researchers said. "Instead, limited amount of personal Web use should be allowed, since it has salubrious impact on employees' productivity."

Chen and Lim urged companies to find some kind of middle ground to allow cyberloafing but to discourage personal e-mailing.

They are presenting their findings, "Impact of Cyberloafing on Psychological Engagement," in San Antonio at the Academy of Management's annual meeting, which concludes Tuesday.

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