Internet Usage – Does it Hurt Employee Productivity?

Internet and cell phone usage are to our most recent generations what smoking was to those in the past. You’ve got people getting hired left and right who use the Internet on a daily basis, and then are asked to completely abstain from such activity from 9am to 5pm Monday through Friday (barring lunch breaks). There have even been multiple debates in recent years over the legitimacy of allowing smoking breaks for smokers while not having specific Internet or cell phone breaks. Sound a bit silly? The fact is, Internet usage among employees certainly demands your attention, whether you know it or not, but how should you handle it? Does personal Internet usage mean employees are wasting company time and losing you money? Are there any benefits to be derived from allowing workers to hit up their favorite social media sites throughout the day? Let’s take a look at both sides of the issue.

Internet is Good for Employee Productivity

While it may seem counter-intuitive, Internet usage, even for personal or non work-related activities might be a good thing for your employees. A recent study in the Wall Street Journal found that employees regularly engaging in web surfing activities were significantly more productive and engaged when they returned to work-related tasks than their non cyber-using counterparts. The study even recommended having (limited) time allotted for employees to take a breather and read through personal emails or other sites.

Example, browsing for the latest news headlines can help employees take a mental break and get refocused if working on a repetitive task for an extended amount of time. Furthermore, if an employee is dealing with a personal or family issue, being able to get status updates on loved ones without sneaking around to pull out their phone or bring up a web browser while worrying about someone looking over their shoulder can help put minds at ease and reduce stress; stress reduction can also increase focus and decrease risk for accidents on the job.

As a final benefit, constant connectivity may be a boon to your company, depending on the business you’re in. Firms now employ people full time to manage their Twitter feeds, blogs, and Facebook fan pages because they know it is important to shape their image in the main places people spend their time. Employees who are connected to current events, public perceptions of your brand, and general buzz on social media can place themselves in a better position to represent your company in interactions ranging from company meetings to off-work interactions in their personal lives. Think of it this way – in a weekend conversation with their friend, would you rather have an employee saying, “Yeah my company’s is so annoying, they even block news sites during the week,” or, “You know that video on green living everyone’s been posting about? I showed our manager and we might start using recycled paper now, how cool!”

Internet is Bad for Employee Productivity

By the same token, there are some obvious drawbacks to unbridled Internet usage as well. Chief among them is that without some sort of limit, there is the risk that usage will be constant and that work tasks, customer service, and overall productivity could suffer. This is often the case in jobs with a lot of cubicles, without restrictive software (which is another debate all of its own) workers are free to fly around to whatever sites they choose during work hours.

Another inherent danger in “whatever sites they choose,” is, well, which sites those turn out to be. If an employee visits pornographic or other sites on the job (and no, this is certainly not unheard of), they can, depending on a number of factors, expose your company’s computers and network to viruses and spyware. Worse, illegal downloading of copyrighted material can make you, the Internet subscription and network owner, liable in certain cases, rather than the employee. For these reasons, Internet usage policies must be preventative, not reactive, if you’re going to have one in place.

Lastly, there’s the employees that have problems starting back up again after disconnecting from their work. In the same ways such a break can be good for some employees, others might lose too much momentum when given the freedom to play around on their computers and devices throughout the work day.

And Then There’s You.

What do you think? Do the potential benefits outweigh the risks? Can employees self-regulate enough on the job when using the Internet? What kind of policy do you have right now, how effective has it been? Weigh in!

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