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Downside to digital breaks at work


Elaine Bourne

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TECHNOLOGY IS influencing all aspects of business communication, and in recent years the widespread use of Internet and email has revolutionised the way business is conducted.
Today, businesses are able to achieve their goals more efficiently as employees can communicate and perform tasks more speedily than ever before.
However, if organisations manage employee use of this technology poorly, they will be adversely affected by outcomes such as low worker productivity and reputational risk.
According to recent research by Brent Coker PhD, University of Melbourne, employee productivity increases by nine per cent when they surf the Internet for less than 20 per cent of their working hours, or less than eight hours per week.
Attention span
This notion that workplace Internet leisure browsing (WILB) in moderation facilitates productivity may seem counter-intuitive. However, it is widely accepted by psychologists and educators that the average length of an adult’s attention span is 20 minutes.
Generally, people take a break after 20 minutes of concentrating, then refocus on the task at hand. However, this mental state depends on environmental factors such as temperature, level of interest in the activity, and the material’s degree of difficulty.
WILB allows employees to take a mental break from a task and to refocus or prepare for the next task. This Internet use provides workers with a reward for completing a task.
Some workers prefer to reward themselves with a cup of tea or coffee, visit a colleague’s cubicle to chat for a few minutes, or take a digital break. These short breaks throughout the day increase worker productivity.
Younger workers
Younger workers tend to be more technologically savvy and are more likely to take a digital break than older workers. Some of these popular activities include meeting friends and colleagues on popular social networking sites such as Facebook, Hi5 or MySpace, reading local and international newspapers and magazines, sending and checking personal email, or using instant message technologies with friends or colleagues.
Essentially, at the end of successfully completing a task, workers typically take a mini-break as a reward. Depending on one’s age or comfort level with technology, one may take a digital break or assemble at the water cooler.
Cyberslacking
As with most activities, if left unchecked, abuse will occur. Instead of a ten-minute WILB, an employee may engage in cyberslacking activities which may include gambling, visiting pornographic sites or spending several hours surfing the Internet.
The term “Internet addiction” is popular and 10 to 14 per cent of Internet users may indicate they are addicted. However, this term is not officially recognised by the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) of Mental Disorders as an official disorder.
It is worthy of note that the 2012 edition of the DSM is likely to include online gaming addiction.
Employer perspective
Excessive Internet activity during working hours hampers productivity and needs to be effectively managed.
Drastic employer reactions to this counterproductive behaviour may be evidenced by the utilisation of firewalls to block popular sites like Hotmail and Facebook or restricting Internet use on the job.
This is understandable, as employers need to mitigate risks such as malicious content entering the network through viruses and spam and to address the issue of low productivity. In the absence of practical strategies for effectively monitoring worker productivity, such measures are justified.
Nevertheless, a carte blanche approach to managing worker Internet activity adversely affects productivity, and the productivity gains of WILB are nullified.
Solutions
Human resource professionals develop Internet access policies (IAPs) which provide businesses with corporate guidelines for addressing workplace cyberslacking.
These professionals are also required to enforce and manage the IAP. Like most HR issues, adequately addressing Internet use in the workplace is not a simple matter.
As the workweek increases, it is necessary to complete personal tasks such as online banking while in the office. Consequently, most workers welcome this WILB.
Online access
Recent employee Internet management (EIM) software allows options such as time-based quotas, online access at specific times of the day, as well as customised access by job function or by department, to name a few options.
However, most Barbadian small businesses may be unable to afford the latest EIM software. The most practical solution may be for supervisors and employees to establish realistic output targets in reasonable timeframes, and monitor employee productivity based on specific outcomes which were agreed on by employee and supervisor.
• Elaine Bourne is president of the Human Resource Management Association of Barbados.

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