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Are you a cyberslacker?

Volume 7 Number 8 August 15 - September 11 2011

It appears to be a fairly universal human urge to browse far and wide on the internet, usually to the detriment of productivity, but self-control and some apps can restore order. By Carolyne Lee.

How much time have you spent on Facebook today? Or online shopping, or even online ‘window-shopping’? Then there are the many interesting blogs to read; as well as tending to our own. And for all of us, there are always emails: all those little unopened yellow envelopes lined up enticingly each morning, begging to be opened, and trickling or flooding in for the rest of the day. Some demand immediate answers, and when you’ve spent time composing well-thought-out responses, you can then trawl through the others, sending off a “Thank you” here, or a whimsical one-liner there.

It would be easy to spend 40 hours a week on all these online activities – many people probably do spend the majority of their time this way. But for those of us who want or need to spend that 40 hours working, succumbing to online activities is apparently costing us dearly in lost productivity.

Research into this relatively new phenomenon is still limited. But from existing research we know that in organisations each day an average of between 60 and 80 minutes per employee is wasted on non-work internet activities including browsing websites unrelated to work, downloading information of personal interest, Facebook or other social media sites, or personal emails.

These activities are termed ‘cyberslacking’, or ‘cyberloafing’. American research studies claim that approximately 30 per cent to 65 per cent of internet usage at work is not work-related, and that cyberslacking is estimated to cause lost productivity of US$178 billion in total per year.

While some research suggests that certain professions, genders or age groups are guiltier of cyberslacking than others, studies also reveal that the behaviour seems to be almost universal. And contrary to previous research, a recent study found older employees engaged in more cyberslacking than their younger colleagues, possibly because theirs were organisations in which the older workers were more likely to have job security and tenure.

My own research into the cyberslacking habits of recent graduates, who are all doing work they trained for and love, usually working under minimal external supervision, reveals that cyberslacking is a constant concern even among a particularly work-dedicated cohort.

Of course, many of us have to monitor online news and various other websites as part of our work, and this can be particularly dangerous, as it can lead to cyberslacking almost accidentally. Unsurprisingly, research shows that the more workers need to use the internet for their jobs, the more likely they are to cyberslack.

One respondent, a journalist, describes how what starts out for him as useful news monitoring and research on the internet can easily segue into cyberslacking. I know from my own internet research habits that I can be reading an important news article in the online Guardian for my work, and 10 minutes later I find myself browsing through the books and DVDs advertised in the Guardian bookshop, with no memory of when I made those last few fateful clicks.

This semi-conscious type of online activity is described by psychologists as a ‘flow state’ as it is habitual and automatic, rather like an addiction. The issue was addressed in a recent article in the journal Computers in Human Behavior, in which Vitak and her co-authors report that “Fortunately, the downward spiral in which innocuous habits become bad habits [like cyberslacking] is, to some degree, self-correcting.” This is because awareness of negative consequences can often diminish the strength of a habit. So, it is possible to exert self-control and correct one’s cyberslacking behaviour.

The relationship between self-control and cyberslacking has been the focus of some recent studies. Clearly, a very conscious and reflective use of self-control is needed in order to combat what is a fairly universal impulse to cyberslack. Individuals all have varied amounts of self-control, according to psychologists, but it’s also a limited resource. If you are using your self-control to regulate an urge in one area, you may not have enough to deal with another at any given time.

What should organisations do, if anything, to reduce the adverse effects of cyberslacking? Some clues might be provided by two of the respondents to my survey – both freelance workers. One said he is paid by the hour, so if he cyberslacks instead of working, he bears the consequences. Both respondents also have to work to strict deadlines to ensure payment.

Punitive measures have been found to make matters worse; and if employees feel resentful towards their managers or employers, they are more likely to cyberslack. Increased surveillance measures and blocking of internet access have been found to lower productivity and job satisfaction, in turn increasing the tendency to cyberslack.

A more fruitful approach might be to discuss cyberslacking openly, as an urge that we all feel, and all have to fight. Once the whole issue is out in the open, employees may well be motivated to develop their own measures as well as deadlines, to help them deal with cyberslacking.

For example, one of my colleagues, when writing on the computer, also uses a program called Freedom which disables the internet for an hour or so each time. Another colleague writes initial drafts on paper to avoid clicking across from Word to Firefox. A family member who works for a very large organisation is advised to check emails only twice a day for short periods, and to reply solely to those requiring instant responses. Others go into the ‘non-urgent’ folder to be dealt with during a non-busy period, or are deleted.

My main strategy, however, while working 100 per cent on research and writing as I am now, is to record all my hours worked, deducting any time spent cyberslacking. If I work only four hours in one day, because of cyber- or any other type of slacking, then I must make up the time that evening or over the following few days. While this is happening I don’t allow myself any long period of recreation (such as a film or an outing) unless I have completed 40 hours work for the week, or am on track to do so.

Dr Carolyne Lee is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Culture and Communication, Faculty of Arts. Her latest book is Our Very Own Adventure: Towards a Poetics of the Short Story (MUP, 2011)