In this follow-up article to the recently published “Freedom to Surf” manuscript, I outline the latest evidence supporting the argument that Facebooking in the workplace leads to greater productivity. Based on some recent experimental research, I also make the argument that blocking access to digital network memberships can lead to psychological distress.
In 2009 I became interested in how productivity was affected by people using the internet for personal reasons in the workplace. At the time (and even now actually), many workplaces blocked outside access to non-work related websites. One of the more disturbing trends was that people were getting fired for accessing non-work related websites during work hours. I termed personal use of the internet in the workplace “Workplace Internet Leisure Browsing” or “WILB” for short. Contrary to employer claims, the original study found that people who used the internet for personal reasons during work hours were actually around 9% more productive than those who didn’t (or couldn’t)*
At the time I speculated that the reason for the positive effect of WILB on productivity was related to concentration restoration. Past research into short breaks suggested increases in productivity under certain conditions. This made sense: no-one can possibly concentrate for 8 hours straight. We all need regular mini breaks in order to restore concentration. WILBing seemed to be the perfect type of break. It was unobtrusive –the user did not need to leave their desk. And it was enjoyable –the more enjoyable a break, the faster concentration gets restored.
Since the original study was conducted, I have become more interested in the mechanics behind the productivity-WILB phenomenon. Specifically, although we have reasonable evidence suggesting WILB may lead to increased productivity, we had little evidence to suggest an absence of WILB might lead to a decrease in productivity. Specifically, the question on my mind was: Could blocking people’s freedom to connect to Social Media sites negatively affect their psychological state?
One experiment conducted since the original study finds interesting evidence for how WILB could positively affect productivity, while at the same time give clues to how blocking could have a negative effect on psychological state. The design was as follows:
· Four groups were set up
· Participants in each group were given a mind numbing task for 40 minutes. The task was to watch a line appear and disappear on a screen.
· Whenever the line was shorter than usual, participants were instructed to tap the spacebar as quick as they could.
Three groups were given 3 breaks during the task, spaced at 10 minute intervals.
· Group one were given no break.
· Group two were told to remain watching the screen during the break, and not to communicate with anyone else in the room.
· Group three were told to browse to an insurance website, and compare the plans on offer with the view towards making a possible purchase.
· Group four were asked to visit their Facebook account do what they would normally do on Facebook.
You will see on the graph below that reaction times increased significantly for all groups, except for the group that were allowed to use Facebook during the breaks. Those who were given no break or a mundane task to do had a steady slowing in their reaction time performing the task.
Reaction times are closely linked to concentration levels. When we are mentally tired, our reactions slow down. Thus, it appeared that the Facebook task appeared to have a positive effect on participants’ concentration. Specifically, it appeared to allow participants to restore their concentration better, and faster, than the other groups. This result is consistent with our initial argument that not all breaks are equal in terms of restoring concentration. Like a walk in the forest restores concentration better and faster than sitting in the lunch room, so too does Facebooking restore concentration better than non-networked type breaks.
So why then would blocking internet access have a potentially negative effect on psychological well-being? If you take away a worker’s ability to connect to their social networks online, how could this have a negative effect on their state of mind? I believe the answer to these questions is related to human instinctive programming to be part of a group. We are essentially pack animals. We are all part of a group, a family, a team, an organisation, a club. We’re all programmed to be part of A Network.
The modern way of staying connected to our chosen tribe is of course through digital networks –aka social media. The younger generation in particular are in constant contact with their networks through digital devices. Tweets, Posts, Updates, and even texts are all motivated by our desire to touch base with the people we consider part of our group. If you cut someone off for 8-10 hours per day, then you are blocking their ability to stay connected. We already know about the effects isolation can have on the human spirit; at its worse it causes significant psychological distress. In light of this, it could be argued that blocking someone’s connection to their group could be considered a form of forced isolation; similar to that uneasy feeling of being in a foreign country without a phone to call home.
My aim of this article is to relight the argument against blocking WILB in the workplace. Despite rapid progress in the past couple of years, many organisations continue to block employee access to social media and other network and entertainment type sites. My evidence in support of allowing free and unrestricted access to the internet continues to grow. Please feel free to drop me a line or comment on your own experiences below. I would love to hear from you! Happy WILBing.
*The definitive version is available at www.blackwell-synergy.com
Coker, B L S. (2011). Freedom to Surf: the positive effects of workplace internet leisure browsing. New Technology, Work, and Employment 26:3 (238-247)