Is Web Surfing Distracting Your Workers?

If you think that banning web surfing at work will improve your employees' productivity, think again. In new research on the effects of temptation, HBS research fellow Marco Piovesan and colleagues found that the act of resisting temptation distracted subjects enough that their work performance actually suffered.
by Michael Blanding

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."

Marshmallow Bait

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."

About the Author

Michael Blanding is a writer based in Brookline, Massachusetts
    • Rahal Jayawardene
    This is a tricky issue and a dilemma that most of today's CIOs are facing "Should we regulate, to arrest unproductively, which has proven to hinder productivity?"

    Marco and his team provide a valuable insight to this issue and his recommendations are implementable. The challenge would be to strike the right balance; to lend freedom but not to let it be abused. The policies should be simple, complex policies can hinder their own effectiveness.

    With the dawn of the conceptual age there is a rapid growth of knowledge workers in our organizations, who could be persuaded to make rationalized decisions on their own. In this light, what if autonomy is given to employees to manage their own time spent on recreational web? Would Self-Policing be the answer we are looking for? We need to facilitate a broader discussion to find answers.

    Self-policing or self-regulation as some would term, had been a practice of good corporate governance. Can we instill the culture of self-policing in employees giving them the autonomy to manage their own time spent on recreational web? Will it give them the much needed freedom to give-in to their temptations and to work productively thereafter? Autonomy fostering productivity makes sense, as it constitutes a vital ingredient of intrinsic motivation.

    The success, in our view, lies in the culture we instill in the organization, where employees are given the right and responsibility to self-regulate and where the CIO's mandate would be to facilitate it. What if we can introduce systems to help employees to keep tab of their own internet activity on YouTube or on facebook? What if we just communicate their weekly spend on recreational web at the end of each week? Will this not help employees to self-regulate?

    The texture and context of messaging will be a key to success and can differ with the goals the management sets to achieve.

    A friendly e-mail; "Hi Ted, your total time spend on recreational web for last week is 1 hour and 40 minutes" may actually help employees to keep tab of their recreational web browsing and self-regulate.

    Self-policing would be effective among majority of knowledge workers, but there will always be an odd drifter. It is important to have a consensus among the management of the leeway given to employees.

    However, caution should be taken not communicate a pre-defined quota to employees, which would defeat the purpose of self-policing and autonomy. There is a high chance that any pre-defined quota would be interpreted as a free-ticket by the employees.

    Deterrents could effectively be used to keep the drifters at bay. Supervisors could be alerted of consistently high recreational web users, so that supervisors can then rationalize their behavior. If such behavior has no rationale, deterrents could be used effectively.

    A more assertively crafted message;
    "Hi Ted, in the last 40 working hours you have spent 4 hours on recreational web. We are trying to help you manage your own time" may be used as a deterrent.

    We believe the chances of success of self-policing will be high wherever the knowledge workers are a majority. If successful, this will provide an answer to the dilemma today's CIOs are facing:

    "Should we regulate, to arrest unproductively, which has proven to hinder productivity?" Or, should we opt for self-policing and autonomy which could foster productivity?

    You can share your views and help us with our survey.

    Here's the link for your comments.
    • Dale
    • Director, Epic Web Marketing
    The following is a video from a short talk from TED U, Joachim de Posada shares a landmark experiment on delayed gratification -- and how it can predict future success.

    It is amazing to see the followup that was done and how the children who were able to resist the temptation to eat the marshmellow were more successful in most areas of their lives. That is mindboggling. Every parent wants their children to be successful in life, but they don't teach them the principle of delayed gratification.

    Regarding web surfing at work, I have seen that most of the younger generation from 20 to 30 years old regard web surfing as normal. It also depends on how productive the employees are. In some ways it may be in lieu of a normal coffee break or cigarette break.

    However it is up to every manager to monitor the output of their employees and compare against time spent surfing the interent. Most companies have software to monitor what sites their employees are going to. And some organizations that I know of are blocking access to sites like Facebook, Twitter, etc.

    From what I can see, it has to be monitored on an employee by employee basis.

    • Chris Caton
    • President, Trudo Realty
    Whatever happened to measuring employee productivity by output rather than downtime? They're human beings, not Xerox machines, after all. If I get what I consider to be a reasonable amount of work product in return for the wage I am willing to pay, I don't see a conflict here except for middle-management, desperately trying to find relevence through office policies.
    • Adrian
    • Snr Ops Manager, FSF Ltd
    Surely you just restrict access to the most popular "non-work" related website (Facebook, Twitter etc) and monitor productivity.

    This smacks of over-analysis if you ask me.

    • Anonymous
    Interesting that they consider College Students who are still kids as "adults" in a work environment. They just tested older kids, So I wonder if they can repeat the test with real adults to see if the hypothesis holds. I'm sure there are enough out of work adults that would be willing to participate.
    • Kapil Kumar Sopory
    • Company Secretary, SMEC(India) Private Limited
    Web surfing distracts workers if they spend (waste) time on sites not directly related to their job. Managements need to make this known to all workers right at the start of their career and, if done with care and focus, none would be tempted to go to other site. A few may but a proper surveillance mechanism can take care of this.
    Certain sites, such as pornographic, commercial, sports and games, political, etc., need to be prohibited and not allowed to be opened. This is an proaction for doing away with major temptations.
    Web surfing, I reiterate, is necessary for work-related activities and this be freely allowed.
    • Greg
    As an IT professional, I am approached by site managers on a regular basis with concerns about Internet usage.

    My first step is to make it a management (rather than a technology) issue. Are they productive? Are they viewing inappropriate material? Are they distracting other employees?

    I then point out that in pre-Internet days the problem was employees hanging around the coffee machine, drifting into people's office to talk sports, reading the newspaper, and smoking breaks.

    Finally, I point out that if they are productive and completing their work on time, perhaps some Internet time is cheaper than a pay raise.
    • Anonymous
    Another ridiculous management study that 1. tries to overextend results from one study to a completely unrelated group and situation, and 2. tries to paint a blanket picture that applies to all workers in all types of jobs and industries.

    And I agree with the previous poster who mentioned productivity as output as the key. Workers get the necessary amount of work done in the necessary time until their capacity is overloaded. Why is it that US workers do not product more than Germans, who have significantly less work days per year? See the analogy?

    Now why not study monkeys or ants and try to generalize the results to all worldwide workers? That seems just as valid to me as studying kids.

    Seriously, I never fail to be amazed as what is passed for science in management.
    • Abhishek Syal
    • Founder, Secretary, Act to Rise for Innovation in Special Education ( A R I S E )
    A nice article. I agree. I have seen many people using workarounds. They would rack their brains, and use official time, in order to either get the internet (wireless options on their smartphones) or any proxies, etc. That made them less productive, and introduced a constant fear psychosis: What would happen if the get caught?

    Second, they remain distracted more.
    • Prasad
    Interesting views from different people. Allowing people to access internet is a 'Hygiene Factor'. They are cases where the organizations allowed internet and later asked the employees to stop using, this has created unrest and anti management mindset with the people. The management should allow employees with websurfing as it conveys a sense of autonomy among employees and management should focus on communicating the trust factor with employees. Disallowing web surfing distracts more then allowing the web surfing. Management should focus on the deliverables and create a culture of professionalism, all other things will fall in place.