As Internet connected technology continues to advance at an amazing rate, each wave of change it brings has an impact on how we both live and work in many ways. Some are very much welcomed and of course some we rather do without. In many workplaces today the Internet has become somewhat indispensable. It can be considered a focal point for communication, aiding collaboration among employees and also as a productivity booster where it reduces the time we take to perform many tasks. However, on the flip side there is also the growing concern that some employees abuse and misuse this resource.
Researchers have cited compelling evidence that suggests these concerns are well founded. Greengard (2002) found that in 2000, 56% of employees were using the Internet for personal reasons and by 2003, Griffiths (2003) reported that 59% of workplace Internet usage was not work related. As early as 2005, cyberslacking was considered as the most common way employees wasted time at work (Malachowski, 2005). According to researchers (e.g., Greenfield & Davis, 2002; Mills, Hu, Beldona, & Clay, 2001), the average time spent on cyberslacking ranges from little over 3hrs per week to 2.5hrs per day. However, depending on the study you are reading, there can be drastically different estimates for these statistics.
Cyberslacking in Your Organisation
Sometimes referred to as cyberloafing (Lim, 2002), cyberslacking has been widely defined as “employees’ non-work related use of company provided email and Internet while working”. However, with the increasing use of Blackberry messenger and other smart phone Internet-based services, this definition should be expanded to include all points of Internet connectivity within the workplace. Therefore, subscribing to Whitty and Carr’s (2006) view of cyberslacking, this practice is better defined as “the overuse of the Internet in the workplace for purposes other than work”. Cyberslacking goes by many names: cyberloafing (Lim, 2002), non-work related computing (NWRC Bock, Quan, Liu & Sun, 2007) and lastly, cyberbludging (Mills, Hu, Beldora & Clay, 2001).
Remember being called or calling someone else a slacker? Usually we used this label to refer to those who avoid doing work or putting in the amount of effort necessary to get a job done. This included those present for water cooler gatherings for idle chatter and gossip, taking extended lunches, having long personal or non-work related telephone conversations, and perhaps also those who could not get enough of the rest room. Now in recent times, it is the Facebookers, illegal downloaders, online gamblers, online ‘window’ shoppers, those who look at pornography at work and many more variations thereof.
Nonetheless, as you can appreciate, not all infractions of this nature should be regarded with the same gravity nor incur the same consequences. Some researchers (e.g., Anandarajan, Devine & Simmers, 2004) have found it fitting to group these behaviours into 3 main categories. Firstly, disruptive cyberloafing refers to those who for instance visit adult web sites and play online games in the workplace. Secondly, recreational cyberloafing speaks to employees who engage in online shopping, including ‘window’ shopping, and ‘purposeless’ surfing. Lastly, personal learning cyberloafing includes visiting professional groups and searching for news about current affairs including that of the organisation as well.
Research has pinpointed several personal characteristics of cyberslackers that can be leveraged to identify those who are most prone to engage in the practice. Based on anecdotal evidence and conversations with employers and employees, there is a notion that many individuals who engage in cyberslacking are seeking retribution against their employer or looking ‘to get even’. However, a more plausible and realistic explanation of the motivations behind cyberslacking relates to the appeal of the technology and its affordances.
Katz, Blumler and Gurevitch’s (1974) Uses and Gratification (U & G) theory suggests that people select and use certain media to receive satisfaction from having their needs, interests, or goals fulfilled. Research investigating this in the context of the Internet found that given the unique features of the medium there is a range of possible desires and needs that employees could seek to gratify (Roy, 2009). This belief is instrumental in predicting excessive and problematic Internet use (Song, Larose, Eastin & Lin, 2004).
In particular, Chen, Ross and Yang (2011) identified employees desire to find diversion and entertainment to be a predictor of several forms of problematic Internet use at work. Satisfying this desire may involve listening to music, watching videos, playing video games and shopping. While this seems to be a huge waste of valuable time, considering that other concepts proposed by U & G theory — desire to participate in a virtual community and the desire to maintain relationships — were not instrumental in predicting cyberslacking, these findings suggest that there are unexplained aspects to cyberslacking in need of further exploration.
Though almost any type of employee can engage in cyberslacking, it is usually claimed that employees in lower positions in the organisation and not their more higher status colleagues, with more valued roles, such as managerial staff, are the main offenders. However, research by Garrett and Danziger (2007) reveals that in actuality, higher-level employees, often managers and professionals, are most likely to be the culprits. Those who are more highly paid, educated and have greater workplace autonomy use the Internet more frequently for personal purposes than their lower-status counterparts in the workplace.
Researchers (Lim & Chen, 2009) investigating gender differences in cyberslacking found that men cyberslacked more frequently and for longer periods than women. However, findings also indicated that males took 4 minutes, while females took 10 minutes to switch from cyberslacking activities back to work. As suggested by Weiser (2000) and Hargittai and Shafer’s (2006) research, this can be due to men being more confident in using the Internet than women.
Although cyberslacking is mostly viewed as counterproductive work behaviour, in some instances it can be seen as being positive. According to Verton (2000), online recreation is deemed as being ‘constructive’ when “it is in synch with pending work responsibilities, allowing individuals to use time not consumed by workplace demands in ways that equip them to face future tasks with greater energy and expanded perspectives.” Constructive online recreation also falls within legal and technological constraints imposed by the organisation. Therefore, specific limits concerning content and the time spent performing the activity are limited and regulated by the employer.
Ovarec (2002) reveals that constructive online recreation permits employees to briefly escape demanding and time-intensive jobs. Stanton (2002) found that frequent Internet users reported higher levels of job satisfaction than less frequent users in the workplace. Online recreation activities, like playing online games, are considered constructive as they sometimes provide intellectual and psychological stimulation or support that is often helpful for employees to confidently and successfully face tough challenges in the workplace (Ovarec, 2002).
In light of these findings, reconsidering the earlier point made about the inability of some of U & G theory concepts (i.e., desire to participate in a virtual community and to maintain relationships) to explain cyberslacking, it is apparent that those employees surveyed in Chen et al.’s (2011) study were engaging in constructive cyberslacking by using the Internet as a diversion mechanism for momentary relief from unrelenting job demands.
Vice or Virtue
Cyberslacking can have two sides. It can be destructive to the organisation as it may lead to counter productive work behaviours and reduce productivity without bringing any returns to the organisation. Alternatively, cyberslacking can be constructive and provides positive recreational opportunities to employees, permitting them to better understand and leverage technology to the benefit of the organisations through gains in job satisfaction among other things. Therefore, managers should seek to develop risk management strategies to reduce the negative impact of cyberslacking on the organisation and increase the benefits and opportunities that are made available by this practice in the workplace.
Renaldo Bernard is Principal Partner & Digital Strategist at Bernard Browne – www.bernardbrowne.com