A small business owner might frown on the idea that employees are surfing the Web on work time to read about the state of the NBA lockout. But, when done in moderation, giving employees the freedom to roam the Internet can actually help them work better.
Surfing the Web at work is not only harmless but it can even boost productivity, according to a team of researchers from the National University of Singapore. Web surfing offers workers "immediate gratification" and helps them "restore resources that are drained as a result of work," the researchers reported at last week's meeting of the Academy of Management in San Antonio, Texas.
The findings were based on a study with 98 participants with an average age of 21, who were divided into three control groups. Each group either surfed the Web for 10 minutes, did whatever they wanted during the time period except look at Web pages, or performed the task of bundling sticks into groups of five.
After the 10-minute time period, each group was given another 10 minutes to highlight with a marker the letter "A" where it appeared in a 2000-word text. After the tests, the participants answered a questionnaire to help determine their levels of boredom, mental exhaustion, and psychological engagement.
The results showed that the group that had surfed the Web for 10 minutes scored the best results in the test that involved finding the letter "A" in the text. They performed the task more efficiently than the other two groups of participants who had either worked by bundling sticks or were allowed to do whatever they wanted during the time period except look at Web pages. The Web-surfing group also reported in the questionnaire that they felt less bored and mentally exhausted and felt more psychologically engaged.
Surfing Is Better Than Email
If surfing the Web is good, where does that leave checking email? After all, leisurely Web browsing usually goes hand in hand with checking personal emails. But according to the study, checking email, in fact, does not offer the benefits that Web surfing does. This is because checking email demands more attention and is more "cognitively taxing," the researchers said. Also, since workers have no control over the content of the messages they receive, reading and responding to the messages is more mentally taxing than surfing the Web is.
Security Risks Can Be Mitigated
Some small and midsize business (SMB) owners prohibit non-work-related Web surfing because of security concerns. They may worry about employees accessing sites that might offend fellow co-workers or being lured to download malware. However, you shouldn't prevent employees from surfing for these reasons, because you can take steps to make surfing secure.
Besides mitigating security risks by protecting the network with a firewall and antivirus protection, you can put into place effective policies for users to follow. Your company might, for example, prohibit downloads or installations of any kind of third-party software from websites, access to certain kinds of websites, or visiting streaming video sites, which can bog down bandwidth.
Employees Need Their Freedom
So, employees should be allowed to surf the Web at work, but within reason, of course. Someone who spends most of the day perusing TMZ.com or ESPN.com is obviously going to have trouble getting their work done. In fact, the Singapore researchers say employers should allow time for "limited amount of personal Web use," implying that spending too much time on the Net for non-work-related reasons is not a good thing.
But over-aggressively using monitoring software to prevent users from spending too much time on the Net is not the solution, either, and is arguably unethical. Workplaces in the United States reserve the right to monitor Web use, but that does not necessarily mean that employers should routinely monitor users' Web surfing, either, even if it is legal. Especially in workplaces where professionals are paid for results, many employees will think that the amount of time spent surfing is none of management's business.
The best practice is to allow employees to surf the Web while making users aware of policy, and then give them the freedom to get their work done.
Bruce covers tech trends in the United States and Europe. He can be reached through his Website at www.brucegain.com.