Surf on, Dutiful Cube-Dweller

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There's a new study out this week that claims employees are actually more productive at work when they can take short breaks throughout the day to to surf the Internet. Should companies drop Internet access restrictions and let employees Twitter away their coffee breaks?

In a prepared statement, University of Melbourne's Dr. Brent Coker says, "People who do surf the Internet for fun at work... are more productive by about 9% than those who don’t." If you're hoping Coker is talking about online social networking, prepare to be disappointed. He says most people spend their surfing time checking out the news or researching products, not throwing sheep at people on Facebook.

That said, I'm sure there are plenty of people who would find themselves more refreshed by a few minutes spent at LinkedIn or Facebook than an hour with other office employees. Historically when workers take breaks, they pass the time chatting with coworkers or colleagues by default because they're the only people around. However, that's the last thing someone who's uncomfortable dealing with groups or office politics wants to do. If you're the shy type, by far the most relaxing place to while away breaktime minutes is chatting at the computer with a circle of friends you're already comfortable with instead of hanging out at the snack machine.

Of the 300 people who participated in Coker's study, 70% reported they engage in "Workplace Internet Leisure Browsing." I wonder how many of those 210 people consider themselves overtly social at work and how many prefer taking their breaks away from others?

Since naturally social people gravitate to the office water cooler while those who are less social head for their computers, it might explain why so many of the respondents said they feel refreshed by spending their breaktime in front of the computer. I'd be interested in research that shows if there are any differences in productivity between people who socialize online and those that socialize in person.

If your company blocks Internet access to certain Web sites, you might be able to make a case for getting them to loosen the reins just a bit by claiming research shows surfing employees are happy employees, but don't count on it. There are lots of reasons businesses block Internet access besides productivity issues, but it's worth a shot.

I'm a big believer in trusting employees to get their jobs done in their own way rather than micro-manage every minute of their time, so I'm all for giving workers unfettered access to the Internet. Internet usage isn't going away anytime soon, so as long as strong policies are put in place for anyone who abuses the privilege, companies might as well learn how to roll with it.

Does your company allow unrestricted online access? What has it done for productivity and morale? Let me know in the comments.

This story, "Surf on, Dutiful Cube-Dweller" was originally published by Computerworld.

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