A few years ago, a survey by America Online and Salary.com found that personal internet usage was the biggest source of distraction at work (socialising with colleagues came second). As a way of tackling this problem, many organisations closely monitor employees’ internet activity or ban its use during working hours altogether. After all, many managers feel that watching Fenton the Dog or any other funny video clip on You Tube interrupts real work and should be done at home.
But does clamping down on such activity actually increase productivity? Recent research from the Harvard Business School suggests not, and that telling employees to delay their gratification can actually have a negative impact on performance. In their experiments, the researchers found that those who were told to resist the temptation of watching a funny video made significantly more mistakes on a subsequent task than people who were allowed to watch the video right away.
The researchers suggest that organisations should either eliminate temptation by removing web access entirely or, where this is not possible or practical, allow a certain amount of personal use. One solution might be to agree to regular short internet breaks, managed in much the same way as are coffee and cigarette breaks. Although many managers would feel uneasy about giving official sanction to personal internet use at work, it is perhaps worth considering turning a blind eye to all but the most extreme offenders.