Are Facebook and Twitter Users Really More Productive?

Craig Buckler

private surfingThis story appeared everywhere last week (and it was not an April Fool!) A study carried out at the University of Melbourne discovered that people using the web for personal surfing get more work done than those who do not. The study was carried out by Dr Brent Coker:

People who do surf the internet for fun at work – within a reasonable limit of less than 20% of their total time in the office – are more productive by about 9% than those who don’t.

Dr Coker states that most projects, such as writing a report, consist of mini-tasks e.g. gathering information, entering data, creating a graph, etc. Workers were shown to take small web-surfing “treats” between these mini-tasks. That enabled the mind to rest itself, leading to a higher total net concentration and increased productivity.

I’m sure this news was printed and put under the nose of bosses all round the world!

Correlation does not imply causation

Details about this research have not yet been published, but I suspect the results are statistically flawed. It is certainly difficult to accurately measure productivity, but the following points should also be noted.

1. Work breaks are not a new phenomenon
The internet has not introduced slacking: there are any number of ways to take unauthorised breaks. Those without Internet access can indulge in cigarette smoking, extra-long toilet breaks, chatting by the water cooler, leisurely coffee making, day-dreaming, staring at the moderately attractive person in the next cubicle, wandering around the office with a file, or any other way to interrupt the tedium of their job.

2. The web improves technical ability
Using the web helps technical literacy. Even if someone just learns to use their browser more effectively, it will ultimately help them become more productive.

Workers who do not surf the web are more likely to be IT novices or have little interest in computing. It may not be surprising this group achieves less in their working day.

3. The detrimental effects of blocking the internet
The study compared the productivity of workers with restricted and unrestricted net access. Those with restricted access may not be able to:

  1. access genuinely useful work-related resources
  2. perform personal tasks such as banking or shopping – they may need to leave work earlier to carry out those duties, or
  3. satisfy their web cravings (the study reported that 14% of workers showed signs of Internet addiction).

Perhaps the biggest issue is trust. Companies that heavily monitor or restrict internet usage and other activities display an inherent mistrust of their staff. Could that be a significant contributing factor to lower productivity?

Stating that Facebook and Twitter users are better workers is far too simplistic. Unrestricted internet access can be a privilege and companies have a right to check that it is not abused. However, ensuring workers achieve their goals is possibly handled better by agreed targets and line manager observation than draconian technology filters.

Has Facebook made you work harder? Are you serious?!

Is the Internet restricted or monitored at your workplace? Does that help or hinder productivity?