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Does the Internet waste work time?

Arguably, the Internet decreased face-to-face communications and caused serious changes in the way we socialize with friends and family. We don’t call; we text or email or post on Facebook. But if we assume the hours spent on the Internet are at the expense of friends and family, it appears we could be wrong.

A recent report from the National Bureau of Economic Research indicates the hours people spend online comes less at the expense of family time and more from people’s work time.

It reminds me of how I would often walk into one of my assistant’s office and, seeing her staring at her computer screen, would say “Are you working or shopping?” I was just joking around, but the truth is it might have been either.

The Technology Policy Institute is a research organization that focuses on innovation. A study there by Scott Wallsten found that Internet users consume 27 percent of the time they spend online during their working hours. To put that into some comparative context, people spend 15 percent of their Internet time at the expense of watching television and 12 percent at the expense of sleeping.

Other common activities identified as losing time to social networking and surfing the Web include: education, travel, household activities, relaxing and “thinking.” Wallsten’s research was based on data derived from an annual federal survey on how Americans say they spend their time.

Given, then, that the time spent online is significant and must have some impact on the time spent on work, the question for a business is whether it’s good or bad?

Some researchers say it’s for the better, according to the study. They hold that raw clock time is not the best indicator of effectiveness at work. Studies showing that employees take time from the workday to go on the Internet fail to consider the therapeutic aspects of these breaks, which they say likely increase productivity. Some research suggests that taking regular breaks to surf the Web or take care of email results in workers who feel less tired and more engaged in their work.

In general, whether management believes it’s good or a waste of company time, it’s apparent that time on the Internet for personal reasons during working hours has become part of today’s American culture and it’s significant. When I ask some business owners I see regularly what their policy is about employees on the Internet in the office, they just shrug their shoulders and say “What are you going to do?”

On the other hand, it still might be best to have a basic written policy about personal time on the Internet during working hours. At one time, I had an employee who was running a side business from the office buying and reselling sports tickets, some he’d even received free from media outlets. In those days, our policy simply read “Company computers, including email, are for use on company business only.”

One day, that employee accidentally sent me a promotional email about some Cleveland Cavaliers tickets. Oops! I showed him the door, in accordance with company policy, of course.

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