Cyberloafing (employees using electronic devices for nonwork activities while at work) has been considered a drain on productivity that managers need to prevent. A new study by Stephanie Andel, Stacey Kessler, Shani Pindek, Gary Kleinman and Paul Spector, however, suggests that there can be a positive side to this behavior. This study published in Computers in Human Behavior found that cyberloafing helps employees cope with stress.
The Complicated Role of Cyberloafing
Cyberloafing is when employees use electronic devices, such as cell phones, tablets, or computers to engage in nonwork behavior at work. This can include online shopping, texting friends, using social media, or watching videos. Certainly time spent in these activities is time not spent working and can represent a loss of productivity. However, employees can cyberloaf for a variety of reasons, and an earlier study showed that it can be a way of coping with boredom and having too little to do. Instead of employees cyberloafing when they should have been working, in some cases they were cyberloafing during times there was too little to do. This study raised questions about cyberloafing always being detrimental to organizations.
Cyberloafing Helps Employees Cope
For this new study we surveyed 258 employees about their cyberloafing, their experience with being the target of aggressive behaviors by others, and how much they were considering quitting their jobs. The results showed that employees who experienced aggression at work were more likely to cyberloaf. Further, although there was a connection between being the target of aggression and intending to quit the job, when employees cyberloafed, this connection became weaker. In other words cyberloafing helps employees cope with being mistreated at work. Instead of searching for another job and possibly quitting, it enabled them to stay in the current job.
How to Manage Cyberloafing
Managers should recognize that cyberloafing can be beneficial to the workplace so it should be managed rather than eradicated in most cases. The focus should be on overall employee performance rather than on eliminating all forms of nonwork behavior. This means adopting a new attitude about cyberloafing, and rather than just looking at the negative side, consider that there can be a positive side as well. In other words cyberloafing can be a workplace micro-break that allows employees to cope with boredom and stressful working conditions. Some specific recommendations are
- Empower employees as much as possible to manage their own workload and breaks. Employees should be held accountable for their performance, and not how they spend every minute of the work day. Give employees the benefit of the doubt that they are able to balance work and breaks so that they are best able to maintain productivity. Only intervene when cyberloafing is excessive and interferes with getting the job done.
- Be supportive of employees when they are targets of aggression from others. This can be particularly important in jobs where the incidence of aggression is high, such as customer service and nursing. Support includes both direct assistance in dealing with aggression as it happens, such as a supervisor stepping in when a customer is abusive, or offering emotional support after the fact. Sometimes employees are concerned that when a customer becomes irate, it will reflect badly on them, so reassurance can send the message that aggression is not the employee’s fault. Of course, if the incident was the result of a service failure, supervisors should use the incident as a teachable moment with the goal of improving future performance.
- Reduce stress in the workplace as much as possible. Aggression cannot be entirely eliminated, but it can be reduced by creating a safe climate that makes preventing violence a priority. This means having policies and practices designed to minimize aggression, providing training in how to de-escalate situations before aggression occurs, and having clear guidelines in how to handle aggression.
- Have clear policies about appropriate cyberloafing at work.
- What activities are allowed (texting a friend) and not allowed (online gambling)?
- Note what is allowable and not allowable on the organization’s computer system or other devices. There can by cybersecurity risk in online browsing that must be managed, for example, by only allowing browsing on the employee’s own telephone.
- How much cyberloafing is allowed? Modest amounts can have positive effects without being a drain on productivity. Some organizations have policies that allow cyberloafing during legitimate work breaks.
Management actions can often have unintended negative consequences. An attempt to completely eliminate nonwork use of electronic devices in order to maximize performance might have the opposite effect. Because cyberloafing can help employees cope, allowing a reasonable amount can enable employees to deal with stressful conditions, such as being the target of aggression, and thereby maintain performance. Eliminating cyberloafing might encourage employees to quit rather than cyberloaf when things are tough on the job, which in the long run, would be bad for productivity.
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