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An Employer’s Guide to “Cyberloafing”

To keep employees from goofing off on the Internet during business hours, employers have to keep them interested in their work.

(originally published by Booz & Company)

There’s no question the Internet has been a boon to many companies, making them more efficient and organized. Emails have replaced memos, and employees separated by oceans can strike up a conversation in seconds. But all that easy online access comes with a downside: “cyberloafing,” or employees goofing off on the Internet during work hours, searching for easy apple pie recipes, updating their Facebook status, or sending personal emails.

This uniquely modern form of workplace slacking is both costly and difficult to spot, because employees can appear to be hard at work when they’re actually wasting time. A 2010 study found that the average American admits to whiling away more than two working hours each day online. Researchers have estimated that this equals an annual productivity loss of as much as US$85 billion each year for U.S. firms. And cyberloafing poses additional threats: the loss of bandwidth for conducting real company business, the risk of computer viruses, and potential legal issues resulting from employees’ online activity.

A new study in the Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies, “Cyberloafing and Personality,” sheds light on which types of employees are most likely to lollygag online while on the clock, and suggests ways for firms to limit the practice. Based on detailed surveys and psychological assessments of working adults who use the Internet as part of their jobs, the authors found that young, male employees were the most likely to waste time online.

The authors also examined cyberloafing in terms of the “Big Five” personality traits, which psychologists have agreed largely represent a person’s fundamental character. These traits—conscientiousness, emotional stability, agreeableness, extroversion, and openness to experience—also affect how employees approach their jobs. After controlling for gender and age, the authors found that extroverted personalities were the most likely to fritter away online time on the company dime. This could be because the Internet now has so many social elements that gregarious employees have traded the office water cooler for online interaction with friends and family.

Employees with higher levels of conscientiousness, emotional stability, and openness, on the other hand, were less likely to engage in cyberloafing, while agreeableness had no discernible impact.

How can companies fight back against online slacking? They can always take the easy way out and simply block popular Internet mail servers and instant messenger programs. But they risk alienating employees, who might feel as if they’re being treated like children. A defined Internet usage policy is more helpful, especially if it emphasizes punishment for workers who misuse the firm’s online access, the authors found. Conducting personality assessments based on the Big Five traits and their relationship to cyberloafing may also help companies with their hiring decisions. 

But on a more basic level, giving employees a sense of meaning in their work that keeps them engaged and focused is the best deterrent to cyberloafing, the authors write. Offering job enrichment and training programs tailored to specific employees and positions may be more onerous and costly for companies than simply establishing a corporate Internet usage policy. But strengthening employees’ feeling of worth has many benefits—fewer distractions; increased productivity; and less work time spent on Facebook, eBay, or Twitter being among them.

Matt Palmquist

Matt Palmquist is a freelance business journalist based in Oakland, Calif.

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