Is Cyberloafing Good or Bad?

Employees sometimes take cyberloafing breaks at work like this man who is using his phone at his computer workstation.

A few months ago I was invited to write a commentary on a paper about cyberloafing. Vivien Lim and Thompson Teo wrote a comprehensive review of the academic literature on the topic for the peer-reviewed journal Applied Psychology. My commentary expanded on their discussion of the question is cyberloafing good or bad? There is no simple answer to this question as cyberloafing consists of behaviors that can be used for more than one purpose.

What Is Cyberloafing?

Cyberloafing refers to the use of computer devices for nonwork activities during working time. This can include a variety of activities including

  • Emailing or texting with friends
  • Making arrangements for a vacation trip
  • Playing videogames
  • Reading nonwork materials such as a magazine or novel
  • Shopping online
  • Watching amusing videos

There are many ways that employees can avoid working. What distinguished cyberloafing is that it involves the use of technology. With the widespread ownership of smart phones, in many countries most employees have a cyberloafing device at their fingertips.

What Is Working Time?

For hourly work in which people complete time cards or have to “clock in”, the distinction between working time and nonworking time is straightforward. I once worked in a factory, and we clocked in at 8AM and clocked out at 5PM. Working time was the period from 8AM to noon and 1PM to 5PM. We were expected to be working during those times and if we were not (e.g., if I was away from my station chatting with another employee), it was considered loafing. For many jobs where working time is clearly defined, and under control of management, it is clear when someone is cyberloafing.

As a professor, however, the distinction between working and nonworking time is blurred. Rather than being paid for a set number of hours, we are paid to accomplish particular goals (publish papers) and tasks (teach a particular class). Professors are in control of their working time and can decide when it is time to work and when it is time to take a break. Professor is not the only occupation in which people are given such schedule autonomy and are held accountable for results rather than time. For those occupations loafing would mean a person is spending too little time working, which is reflected in poor performance and productivity–failing to accomplish work goals. Distinguishing cyberloafing from the taking of reasonable breaks can be difficult when people are not required to be working certain hours.

Is Cyberloafing Good or Bad?

As Lim and Teo explain, there are two main functions of cyberloafing from an employee perspective. On the bad side, employees might cyberloaf to avoid working. This could be a form of counterproductive work behavior or CWB in which an employees purposely withhold effort, perhaps to get back at an employer who is treating them unfairly. This is what many people think about when they discuss cyberloafing and claim it is costing companies a lot of money. An employee who is withholding effort is losing productivity that can hurt the company bottom line.

The second type of cyberloafing is when an employee takes a break to recover from the stress of work. Perhaps they are doing a monotonous job and are bored and struggling to maintain attention. Perhaps a nurse just got screamed at by a patient and needs a few minutes to calm themselves down. Cyberloafing can be a way for employees to take a micro-break that helps them regain composure after a stressful experience, or reduce fatigue from doing boring work. Rather than reducing productivity, this kind of cyberloafing can help employees maintain productivity and well-being.

It should be kept in mind that cyberloafing can be good or bad. The best approach for companies to take with cyberloafing is to manage it rather than try to eliminate it. As with many things, a zero-tolerance policy is likely to have unintended negative consequences. In most work settings, employees can be given at least some control over their working time as long as they do not abuse the privilege. They can be allowed to take occasional short breaks that enables them to maintain focus on performance. Letting an employee make a quick personal phone call to check on a sick child can enable them to better focus on work rather than be distracted by worry. A few minutes watching a funny cat video can help a stressed employee calm down and do a better job. Such breaks should be considered investments that can return more in productivity than the time spent in cyberloafing.

Photo by Mikhail Nilov from Pexels

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