brandon_scott (brandon_scott) wrote,

A blog post on the necessity of distrac—hey, a squirrel!

One of the big concerns that companies have when setting up IT departments is how much freedom to give to the workforce when it comes to the Internet.

There are two major philosophical ideas on the subject. The first is that employees are paid to work, not paid to surf the web, and that as such, any possibly distracting Internet sites that are not required to do the job should be off limits – or at least, harshly discouraged. The second is that if you treat your employees like robots, they’ll resent it, leading to on-the-job unhappiness, lost morale, loss of top talent, and therefore, overall loss of productivity.

It’s hard to find hard numbers supporting either theory though – until now. As it turns out, Dr. Brent Coker at the University of Melbourne studied the effects of "Workplace Internet Leisure Browsing" (or "Recreational Traffic" as I’ve come to call it), and found that "employees that surf the Internet for fun at work are more productive by about 9% than those who don’t."

The attraction of WILB, according to Dr Coker, can be attributed to people’s imperfect concentration. "People need to zone out for a bit to get back their concentration. Think back to when you were in class listening to a lecture – after about 20 minutes your concentration probably went right down, yet after a break your concentration was restored.
"It’s the same in the work place. Short and unobtrusive breaks, such as a quick surf of the internet, enables the mind to rest itself, leading to a higher total net concentration for a days work, and as a result, increased productivity."
This result is similar to an effect noted by Jackie Andrade, a professor of psychology at the University of Plymouth – people bored in meetings often "doodle" – because the brain needs to constantly process information, and doodling provides just enough brain-juice during a boring task to prevent the mind from running off into a full-scale daydream.
"You wouldn't want the brain to just switch off, because a bear might walk up behind you and attack you; you need to be on the lookout for something happening," Andrade says.
A point of clarification – Andrade was talking about the evolutionary basis of doodling. No one has any reason to fear bear attacks during business meetings... yet.

Now, there may be security related reasons why one would want to not give desktop administrator access to employees, though this can be a pain, and reasons why you might block certain harmful Web sites and domains. But beyond that, there really isn’t a gain in blocking the distractions of the Internet; Facebook and IM and blogs and the like. has the story of "Lou" whose company blocked instant messaging, using the line that IMs could spread viruses. (This is technically, possibly true, because IM clients are executable files... but plaintext? Not so much.) So, to stay in contact with other people at the company where he worked, he wrote a proxy page and hosted it on his own external Web server.
"I was the information systems intern, with the web design experience, so I hacked together a script hosted on my own server that allowed us to chat with each other and with any friends that wanted to visit the link. It worked because it was browser based and no one had to install anything. But I messed up. The script would refresh the page every 10 seconds… and the IT guy in charge of the network soon noticed that certain computers were making hundreds of requests to my server per day. When he found out what we were doing, he logged into the script just long enough to say "There is no chatting allowed on the company network. Goodbye."He then banned my domain for the rest of the summer."
So instead of providing a new way for inter-departmental communication, the IT department just shut down that avenue and prompted resentment among employees. In fact, Lou goes on to write:
I'm glad I don't work there anymore, and since then I've only worked for smaller firms that don't do this kind of crippling to your computer usage.
Which really is the whole point – employees don’t want to feel like children – like they can’t be trusted, and have to be kept away from anything interesting. So the smart people – that is, the people who are worth the most to your business – are less likely to work for you, rather than your competitors, if you treat them that way.
Tags: writings

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