Net, Clicks And Chill
Rather than being a drain on resources, the phenomenon of ‘cyber-loafing’ by workers can actually pay dividends, says Professor Vivien Lim (Arts and Social Sciences ‘85).
Also known as ‘cyberslacking’, cyber-loafing refers to the actions of employees who take advantage of their corporate Internet access for personal use while pretending to do work. Examples of cyber-loafing include surfing the Internet, sending personal emails, watching YouTube videos, spending a lot of time on social media, and even job-hunting.
In an increasingly digitally-focused, always-connected world, few would dispute that access to the Internet is an essential part of daily professional and personal lives. Consequently, many of us spend a sizeable chunk of the waking day engrossed in our phones or laptop screens to check our social media accounts or email, browse news websites or buy things online. This is even more so during this COVID-19 pandemic, with many forced to work from home.
For many managers and businesses, a common concern is that their employees are accessing the Internet during office hours for personal matters, a practice known as cyber-loafing. The term connotes a waste of time and a drain on productivity. Some firms have tried to curb such practices by blocking access to certain websites or installing monitoring software to track Internet usage. However, such measures can easily backfire. Restrictions or monitoring can lead to resentment among staff and fuel feelings of a lack of trust, undermining productivity and causing talented employees to quit. Employers may also unintentionally block access to commercially-important information or intelligence and actually hamper the ability of employees to do their work. Furthermore, the profusion of wireless devices and cheap data packages means that staff can easily bypass any restrictions or monitoring imposed on fixed workplace networks. At the same time, the distinction between activities which count as cyber-loafing and others which count as actual work is becoming increasingly blurred — especially as many workers use the same mobile devices and applications for both personal and professional purposes.
Given this fast-changing landscape, many firms find themselves seeking measures to tackle or control cyber-loafing among their staff. But perhaps a better question they should ask is whether cyber-loafing is actually as bad as many perceive it to be. A recent study by NUS Business School, in collaboration with Koblenz University of Applied Sciences’ Dr Rashimah Rajah, found that cyber-loafing has several positive effects on productivity, and on the way employees perceive and engage with their place of work.
The message from our study is to see the bigger picture, cut your staff some slack, and allow them to pay back by going the extra mile for their colleagues and the company. The benefits may surprise you.
There is no question that cyber-loafing uses up time that might otherwise be directed at more productive business activities. However, our study found that the self-initiated payback from staff who cyber-loaf can compensate for, or even exceed, this supposed lost productivity. In a series of surveys using undergraduate students and employees at a Singapore-based finance firm, our study centred on the concept of organisational citizenship behaviour (OCB). This is essentially a measure of how helpful employees are towards their colleagues and the company, and how much of an “extra mile” they are prepared to put in for work.
We found that employees generally are aware of their own cyber-loafing, recognise that it represents lost productivity, and in most cases seek to make up for it in their approach to work. This relates to the psychological theory of neutralisation, where individuals seek to rationalise an activity even if they know it to be wrong or detrimental. Generally, this is done in one of two ways. The first is normalisation, where one tries to justify the activity such as by noting that “Others are doing the same thing, so why can’t I?” The second is minimisation, where one seeks to downplay the activity and ask questions such as “It’s only 10 minutes, what harm can it do?”
In our study, we observed both in action. We broke down the practice of cyber-loafing into a range of different activities, including non-work emailing, passive website browsing, and interactive cyber-loafing, which includes engaging with social networking sites or playing games. We found that these generated different levels of guilt feelings among employees and therefore different levels of compensatory response in terms of OCB. For example, employees who engaged in non-work email activity using company resources or during work time tended to compensate with the most OCB towards the firm. This included paying greater attention to conserving firm resources or to using them more efficiently. We did find that interactive cyber-loafing did not have a positive effect on OCB. The negative effect on OCB, however, was negligible.
GIVE US A BREAK
Singapore was among the bottom 10
for work-life balance and ranked the second most-overworked city in a study of 40 cities, according to a 2019 study by tech firm Kisi.
Overall, our findings suggest that cyber-loafing is not all dysfunctional. It does have an upside in that employees who cyber-loaf will compensate by engaging in OCB. Specifically, our findings suggest that cyber-loafing produces two seemingly contrasting emotions — guilt and happiness — both of which can ultimately prove beneficial for employee productivity. This gels with previous research which has found that cyber-loafing can be beneficial to employees’ well-being, acting as a form of “mental break” before employees return their attention to work matters. Indeed, in many cases, employees view cyber-loafing not as deviant behaviour but rather as a well-deserved reward after periods of high concentration on work tasks. Overall, our study found convincing evidence that while technological developments are making cyber-loafing easier than ever, employees’ psychological processes seem to be evolving in such a way that the negative effects are offset by their own initiatives at bringing balance back to productivity in the workplace.
Now that work from home has become a norm, the boundaries between working and personal lives are becoming increasingly blurred. So to managers who view cyber-loafing as stealing company time or a form of deviance, the message from our study is to see the bigger picture, cut your staff some slack, and allow them to pay back by going the extra mile for their colleagues and the company. The benefits may surprise you.
Professor Vivien Lim is a member of the Department of Management and Organisation, NUS Business School. This article was first published in TODAYonline on 22 June 2020.