The Internet still has a stigma, especially in the workplace. Some employers ban the personal use of the Internet while at work. Some reinforce the ban with monitoring software that tracks usage and blocks access to “sin sites” — gambling, pornography, and the like. Other companies have policies only around categories of sites deemed “personal use,” preventing access to social sites like Facebook and Twitter. But a recent study shows that aside from being patronizing and restrictive, stigmatizing use of the Internet for personal purposes while at work may actually increase error rates on subsequent tasks, reducing overall productivity.
The study is predicated on other studies showing that exerting willpower to delay gratification reduces productivity — the mental effort and focus to defer a spontaneous need or desire reduces focus on subsequent tasks. In the case of the Internet at work, exerting the willpower to resist emailing, Facebooking, or Tweeting until you’re home was posited to have a similar effect.
The study, entitled “Temptation at Work,” was conducted by economists from the University of Amsterdam, George Mason University, and Harvard University. The experiment enlisted 61 people, and consisted of three phases. The authors write in the present tense:
In Phase one, subjects perform three counting tasks; in Phase two they have the possibility to watch a funny video; in Phase three they perform ten counting tasks. Subjects in each session are randomly assigned in two treatments: No Willpower Treatment (NWT) and Willpower treatment (WT). The only difference between treatments occurs in Phase 2. In NWT the video starts automatically whereas in WT subjects just see a red button on their screen. They are aware that the video will start if they press the red button, but a text message warns them not to do so. Subjects are not monitored in that no experimenter is visibly present during this phase. The temptation is made salient by ensuring all subjects could hear the sounds of the video.
In phases 1 and 3 subjects earn points according to the precision of their answer. Subjects earn 100 points if they report precisely the correct answer, 65 points if the difference between their guess and the correct answer is 1 (either from above or below), 50 if the difference is 2 and 0 points if the difference is bigger than 2.
It’s interesting to note that the participants who were asked to resist temptation were initially shown to be more skilled at the tasks asked of them, yet made more mistakes when exposed to a tempting use of the Internet over which they had to exercise self-control.
Now, you could argue that the experiment is about distractions — the way WT participants knew a video was playing was that the sound of the video could be heard, but the visual part required the participant to push a red button to get the full video to start. This may have just been distracting. But most offices are noisy, and the Internet is a silent temptation, so I don’t have much of a problem with that part of the study design. But you might, so I’ve pointed it out.
In a recommendation that struck me as somewhat funny (but realistic), the authors state:
. . . employers might consider allowing regular Internet breaks, in the same way that many currently accommodate short but not infrequent cigarette or coffee breaks.
Presuming an office that stigmatizes Internet use as much as cigarette smoking, I pictured a group of Internet addicts huddled by the side door, cradling their iPhones in their shivering hands, stamping their feet and quickly updating their statuses.
The Internet has become integral to our lives. As people have moved online, communicating with them is as natural and easy as communicating with your colleague down the hall. It may even be easier. And the Internet does not equate to distraction from work — I often learn things, get answers, or increase my efficiency by mixing work and personal Internet use not only at work, but also at home, something this study didn’t touch on.
Workplace policies are rapidly integrating the realities of the mobile and social Internet. This study, and others like it, suggest we still can safely move a little farther.