This week brings more data fueling the unending, unedifying struggle between office drones and bosses, with surveys suggesting about one third of the average office workday is devoted to surfing the Web -- with a good chunk of that going to social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. But as always, I have to wonder whether all this "wasted time" actually has a negative impact on productivity?
Sure, the figures are big enough to make even a generous, kind-hearted employer nervous: according to AOL and Salary.com, 44.7% of workers said surfing the Web was the biggest distraction in their workplace. The same survey found that, on average, employees waste over two hours a day online; figuring an eight-hour workday, 2.5 hours comes to 31% of the total time spent in the office. This jibes pretty well with another, separate study from IDC which found that "30 percent to 40 percent of Internet use in the workplace is unrelated to business." Averaging all these numbers, I come up with 33.6% of the workday spent online on non-work-related stuff.
This corroborates other evidence suggesting that this, how you say, "goofing off" is indeed widespread. According to the Cisco 2010 Midyear Security Report, which includes the results of a survey of employees from around the world, 50% of the employees surveyed said they ignored corporate policies which ban social media in the workplace, and over one quarter of the employees surveyed said they had changed the security settings on their work computers so they can carry on their social media activities unhindered. Also earlier this year, Clearswift, a software security company, found that 57% of workers ages 25-34 do personal tasks like checking social networks, emailing, and online shopping while in the workplace.
So, yes: people are clearly surfing the Web and using social media at work. A lot. But I am skeptical when kill-joys take the next "logical" step by claiming that all this non-working is hurting corporate bottom lines and even affecting national productivity -- like a bogus report from a U.K. employer network which I delighted in debunking back in August.
As I argued back then, it seems reasonable to assume that it takes different people different amounts of time to do their jobs, meaning some people might be able to handle all their responsibilities with time left over for social media. In that vein, it might be more accurate to ask bosses how often they have to reprimand employees for neglecting their duties because of social media use, or ask corporate IT departments how often they have to block social sites because productivity is slipping. After all, isn't it the prerogative of bosses to set productivity goals, and then make sure that they're being met? If workers are fully as productive as management expects, then what's the issue?
Once you are willing to consider the possibility that social media use (and Web surfing in general) doesn't necessarily hurt productivity, it begins to look more like a quality of life issue in the workplace. In fact, companies which try to crack down on social media use could find themselves struggling to recruit talented young workers. On that note, Clearswift also found that 21% of young adults said they would turn down a job if it didn't allow them to access social network sites or their personal email during work hours.