A number of studies have suggested that US workers waste between one and two hours a day web surfing, costing their companies billions in lost productivity. In response, some employers have banned private Internet use at the office, a practice that might come back to bite them in other ways, according to new research.
The researchers found that the students facing temptation were more apt to make mistakes and were less productive
By banning web surfing, employers are essentially asking their workers to resist temptation until they can go home and surf on their own time. The rub: studies show that people asked to resist temptation in anticipation of reward become less productive and make more mistakes in their current tasks.
The research paper Temptation at Work, by Harvard Business School research fellow Marco Piovesan and colleagues, is believed to be the first study of the effects of temptation on work performance.
The idea for the study came from a conversation that Piovesan and his research partner Alessandro Bucciol of the University of Verona had with Daniel Houser, head of George Mason's Interdisciplinary Center for Economic Science. Psychologists have long theorized that the energy spent resisting temptation takes attention away from other tasks, but no one had ever investigated it in the context of a work environment.
"Our idea was to investigate this theory that says when we resist temptation we use energy to control ourselves-and then this energy is not available for subsequent tasks," says Piovesan, who conducts much of his fellowship work through the Computer Lab for Experimental Research at HBS. "We were interested to see if this theory was true, and, if so, what were the implications for the work environment."
To test the hypothesis, the researchers used a variation of the "Marshmallow Task," a classic psychological experiment in which children were shown one marshmallow, and told they would be rewarded with two marshmallows if they could resist the temptation to eat the first treat until the instructor returned to the room. Only 30 percent of the kids could hold out.
But instead of measuring wait time, the team measured the ability of children to complete actual work tasks—folding paper per instructions—at an Italian summer camp in 2008. Children facing temptation got less work done, even given the promise of eventual reward of candy and soda: They not only completed fewer tasks, but also made more mistakes, which downgraded their performance.
“We'd expect to find that being more flexible in monitoring Internet use could increase productivity.”
(The effect was particularly pronounced for children below age 9, who were found to be on average 21 percent less productive than the children in the control group—while for children over age 9, there was shown to be no significant difference, a finding consistent with previous research showing that children begin developing willpower between the ages of 8 and 10. For more, see their article "Temptation and Productivity: A Field Experiment with Children," forthcoming in the Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization.)
Despite the fact that the study was done with children, Piovesan saw clear implications for adults—hypothesizing that the effects would change not only with age, but also with the degree of temptation. "If we used the same temptation of candies in an office, probably we wouldn't find anything, but using a different temptation that is stronger for older subjects, the effect would be stronger."
In a recent set of experiments detailed in "Temptation at Work," Piovesan and his colleagues tested exactly that using 20- to 25-year-old college students in an office environment. Instead of paper-folding, the test subjects were given a simple task of counting the number of times people passed a ball back and forth in a video. Between tasks, however, half of the subjects were allowed to watch a video of the British comedy TV show Mr. Bean. The other half were confronted with a flashing red button at the bottom of their screens warning them not to play the video. Upping the temptation, the latter group was able to overhear the video playing nearby and laughter of the students.
As with the summer camp kids, the researchers found that the students facing temptation were more apt to make mistakes and were less productive overall than the control students, underscoring that no matter how much willpower we adults think we have, we are still susceptible to tempting distractions.
Deliver Us From Temptation
For Piovesan, the findings have clear implications for how employers should design their office environments. If they are not able to completely remove certain temptations such as cutting access to the Internet, companies should enact policies that minimize the distraction on employees.
"There are many companies that are prohibiting the private Internet use during official hours," says Piovesan. "It means employees are delaying gratification until the end of the day—and that means they are spending energy to control themselves. If this theory is correct, it means they should be less productive."
That effect could be more critical in jobs where small mistakes could mean a big difference in performance, such as at a shipping company that relies on employees to send packages to correct addresses.
Instead of a blanket policy prohibiting web use, Piovesan suggests employers give workers periodic breaks for personal communications.
"We think it would be a good idea to give employees a break every hour to restore their energy and relax so their willpower comes back to the original level," he says. "They could go out for five minutes and check e-mail and still be able to concentrate on their jobs."
In the future, Piovesan hopes to test that principle in an actual office environment—for example, by measuring productivity and mistakes made by employees in two different branches of the same bank that implemented different policies on Internet use over the course of three months.
"It would be relatively easy to do, and have very clear implications for the company," he says. "We'd expect to find that being more flexible in monitoring Internet use could increase productivity."