Office workers who find time for a little Facebook and Twitter get more work done than those who don't. Here's why.
Researchers at the University of Melbourne found that, on average, employees who use the internet during work hours for personal reasons, such as social networking websites from Facebook and MySpace to Twitter, are 9% more productive than those who don't.
In my experience as a boss, employee and writer who thinks a lot about how technology affects attention and productivity, I think the Aussie researchers are looking at just one tiny piece of the attention-management puzzle.
I believe that not only are office slackers more productive than work-only employees, but that people who work from home are more productive than the office crowd - and for many of the same reasons, which I'll get to in a minute.
The researchers surmised that employees who do what they call "workplace internet leisure browsing" (and what I call "internet slacking") concentrate better after taking a mental break from work. But I'm not sure this explanation fully covers it.
Here are eight additional reasons why I think internet slacking boosts productivity.
1. The subconscious mind keeps working.
Unlike physical labour, which stops when the worker stops, the mind keeps working on mental tasks when you're not thinking about them. This powerful process of problem solving happens when you're surfing the web for fun, watching TV and especially while you're sleeping (hence the phrase, "Why don't you sleep on it?").
Internet slacking helps this process by getting the conscious mind, which is prone to getting stuck or blocked, out of the way.
2. It gets personal things off your mind.
If you're worried about your kids, missing your spouse or preoccupied with some pressing personal matter, you're not going to be firing on all mental cylinders at work. Social networking, Twitter and personal email let you quickly get in touch with friends and family, find out what's going on, then get back to work with your full attention.
3. It builds work relationships.
Companies spend a fortune on rubbish team-building outings, which build work bonds only because everybody is suffering from the same forced interactions.
Social networking, on the other hand, can allow employees to build bonds at no cost to employers. Yes, people interact with family and friends who are not part of the company, but usually people interact with co-workers, too, and this can help build teamwork.
4. It converts real-time interactions into asynchronous ones.
A social interaction controlled by others (also known as an interruption) can devastate attention. I've found that a five-minute office "pop-in" by a co-worker can set me back the equivalent of an hour. This kind of concentration-shattering interaction is allowed - and even encouraged - in the workplace, while social networking interactions are frowned upon or even blocked. Why? Social networking interactions on Facebook and Twitter are, by definition, controlled by the user. They happen between, rather than in the middle of, bursts of focused concentration. They restore productive concentration without interfering with it.
5. It makes work more enjoyable.
People will hate their jobs if they have a strong desire to check in with Twitter, Facebook and YouTube during the day, but are blocked from doing so. If they're allowed to wander online, on the other hand, they'll be happier employees. And happy employees are productive employees.
6. It replaces bad slacking with good slacking.
If you think nobody ever wasted time at work before the Internet came along, well, you may also be interested in a bridge I'm selling on eBay.
People waste enormous amounts of time at work because of messy desks, inefficient processing of tasks, hallway chit-chat, long phone conversations and - the mother of all time wasters - meetings! All these activities look and even feel like work because they exhaust the mind and consume the hours.
Because people still have to meet their work objectives, deadlines and metrics for success, however, internet slacking is likely to displace not productive work, but other (and lesser) forms of workplace slacking.
7. The internet is educational.
Scanning blogs, RSS feeds and Twitter will inevitably introduce employees to wonderful time-management techniques, and stimulate the mind in other ways. (For example, this article you're reading now could be professionally valuable to you in some way. But aren't you supposed to be "working" instead?)
8. The mind will not be contained.
You can force an employee's body into a cubicle or office, but you can't force her mind to follow.
The human mind is a curiosity engine. Give it nothing to do but work, no way to satisfy curiosity or desire for social interaction, and it will rebel. More specifically, it will retreat into the daydreaming echo chamber. It will wander. It will seek ways to sabotage other employees (because that, at least, is interesting). It will employ its natural ingenuity to find ways to avoid work.
Turn the mind loose on the internet, and it will likely go get whatever it needs when it needs it, then return back to focus on productive work stimulated, inspired and educated.
And finally, we come to telecommuters, extreme telecommuters and digital nomads, and why they're the most productive employees of all. I think the main reason is simply that these workers are unsupervised, and can freely surf the internet for any reason at any time. (Plus, they don't have to sit through so many meetings or waste time commuting.)
As any telecommuter or mobile worker will tell you, they tend to establish a rhythm or process for managing work tasks with personal Web surfing that maximises the quality of both.
It's time for managers to shed old and false assumptions about the relationship between Internet slacking and productivity, and treat all workers like telecommuters.
Mike Elgan writes about technology and global tech culture for Computerworld.