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Web surfing a boon to productivity, study showsGetty Images/iStockphoto

Bosses who try to crack down on employee Internet surfing may be wasting more time than their employees, new research has found.

Allowing employees to surf the Net on company time can actually increase productivity, and employers who turn into Big Brother and try to ban it outright will simply find that personal Web surfing increases, the studies by associate professor Vivien K. G. Lim and graduate student Don J.Q. Chen of the National University of Singapore found.

Browsing the Internet "serves an important restorative function," the researchers concluded in a study presented Tuesday at the annual meeting of the Academy of Management in San Antonio. And, their second study found that "rather than reducing cyber-loafing, excessive monitoring increases its frequency, as employees invariably view such policies as a form of mistrust that the company has in them."

In view of this, managers must recognize that blanket policies that prohibit all forms of personal Web usage are ineffective, and excessive monitoring is likely to be counterproductive, they reported.

The conclusions are based on two experiments. In the first, 96 undergraduate management students were randomly assigned to one of three groups – a control group, a rest-break group, and a browsing-the-Internet group.

All subjects were first assigned to spend 20 minutes highlighting as many letter "Es" as they could find in a text of 3,500 words. At the conclusion of the task, subjects spent 10 minutes in one of three ways: The control group was assigned a make-work activity that involved bundling sticks into groups of fives; the rest-break group was free to do anything they wanted except to use the Internet (their activities included visiting the washroom, making phone calls, and text-messaging friends); and the third group was allowed 10 minutes to browse selected websites offering news, social networking, online gaming, entertainment and hobby-related activities.

After the break, all the participants were instructed to spend 10 minutes highlighting as many letter "As" as they could find in 2,000 words of text; the highlighting served as a proxy for productivity.

The Internet browsers were 16 per cent more productive than the rest-break group, and 39 per cent more productive than the control group, the researchers found.

In addition, compared with both of the other groups, the Internet browsers reported significantly lower levels of mental exhaustion and boredom and significantly higher levels of psychological engagement on a questionnaire.

In the second study, 191 randomly selected alumni of a business school were surveyed by mail about their activities at work – specifically the amount of Internet browsing and e-mailing they did, their psychological engagement with their work, and their positive and negative mental state, immediately after cyber-loafing.

Internet browsing was significantly more often related to such upbeat mental states as being excited, interested, alert, and active. And it was inversely related to negative mental states such as feeling distressed, fearful, hostile, and jittery, the study found.

Spending time reading and answering e-mail, however, was found to be significantly more likely to produce negative mental states rather than upbeat ones.

Based on the findings, the authors urge companies to strike a middle ground. "An acceptable Internet use policy would allow for periodic Web browsing while limiting the time spent on personal e-mails," Ms. Lim said.

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