Computer technology has transformed workplaces across the globe over the past two decades. Then came the Internet and, as it rapidly moved beyond a novelty to become a necessity, it too has dramatically changed how businesses run operations and process transactions. While technology is clearly designed to increase efficiency, cost effectiveness, productivity and, ultimately, profitability, there are some drawbacks. One problem reportedly cropping up in recent years is a phenomenon called cyberloafing.

What is Cyberloafing?

Cyberloafing is a term that describes worker behavior on the Internet during work hours. It is a relatively new term. The cyberloafer is a person who spends his or her day on the Internet engaging in non-work related activities. According to Technopedia, the term originates from the word "goldbricking" which essentially means applying a gold coating to a brick of valueless metal, giving it the impression of worth. [1]

Keyboard.Social media on screen
Credit: Andy_Bay via Pixabay CC0 Public Domain

What are the Top Cyberloafing Activities?

According to U.S. News, in 2013 a study published by Kansas State University found a large percentage of employee time spend online engaging in non-work activities during work hours. The study said between 60 and 80 percent of people cyberloaf. [2]

So what are they doing? Cyberloafers spend their days focused on surfing different websites, a few examples are:

  • Engaging in online shopping
  • Conducting online banking
  • Posting on social media
  • Playing Web-based games
  • Watching various types of videos on YouTube or other websites
  • Streaming live sports events, such as March Madness
  • Searching for new jobs
  • Reading and writing emails

The U.S. News also reported email is a "gateway distraction" to other types of cyberloafing since many people tend to leave their personal email accounts open in a browser window as they go about their work day. Consider all the messages and notifications that pop up throughout the day from family and friends, social media website notifiers, and coupons or notifications for online sales. Then there are instant messaging applications to think about, being most popular email programs come with an IM option these days. These interruptions could easily create issues with effective time management if people find themselves continuously distracted.

The Problems with Cyberloafing

Cyberloafing activities have led to lost productivity and, as a result, businesses are losing money paying employees for time not spent performing work tasks. With employee attention being shifted to non-work related activities online, the overall workflow slows down and important deadlines or benchmarks may even be missed. Thousands of dollars are reportedly lost each year per employee. Some reports suggest, collectively, this costs national businesses tens of billions of dollars annually. [6] A March 2016 report gives a more specific number - for U.S. businesses, stating it could be as much as a whopping $85 billion. [7]

Cat napping on printer
Credit: SanGatiche/Flickr Creative Commons-Attribution

In addition, the U.S. News report indicated, aside from the obvious distractions occurring when employees shift to non-work related tasks, employees end up taking time to recover and refocus after engaging in cyberloafing. For instance, a 2012 infographic published by noted it takes a person over 20 minutes to "regroup" after spending time on social media. [3] This conceptually leads to further losses.

Employers Take Action

Due to the increased problems associated employee Internet use, including cyberloafing, many employers have decided to monitor their employees, which has led to different types of organizational problems. Solutions businesses have pursued include:

  • Restricting and/or blocking access to certain websites, such as Amazon, Facebook and other popular websites
  • Monitoring Internet use, including websites visited and emails
  • Amount of time spent online

Instilling these types of measures can have negative drawbacks, not to mention employees are entitled to breaks and lunch hours, creating a conflict with how they can spend their free time with an expectation of reasonable privacy. (Creating work Internet policies can be a delicate balance for employers, cyberloafing issues aside, they do have network security to consider as well). Additionally, these types of solutions also do not address the fact some workers may simply turn to their personal smartphones to cyberloaf if they can't use an employer's computer. Making all the technology policy changes in the world is not going to change some people's behavior.

If the issue of cyberloafing is not present in a workplace and productivity and performance is at desired levels, chances are an employer will allow levels of autonomy when it comes to using the Internet during work hours. In this respect, it does boil down to worker behavior.

Update January 2016:  Further examination of this issue suggests the aforementioned cyberloafing activities can potentially generate higher levels of productivity. In August 2014, early findings of a study conducted by the University of Cincinnati suggest taking work breaks using the Internet "can refresh workers and boost productivity." [4] Worker burnout is something employers also want to avoid.

Credit: Geralt via Pixabay CC0 Public Domain

Another study, published in January 2016, found that how managers approached cyberloafing could have an impact. First they let the participants have open access to the Internet as they were working. Some worked hard, others cyberloafed and some switched back and forth.  About 14 percent of the workers’ time was found to be spent cyberloafing.

Next, they shut down the Internet, but didn't find an increase in productivity. So they tried another approach, they allowed the group to vote whether or not the Internet should be turned off. Ninety percent of the time, the participants voted to cut off access to the Internet. Cyberloafers increased productivity by 38 percent.

“In group voting, you strategically give your workers control over something,” Matthew McCarter,  associate professor of management at The University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA), said in a press release about the study. “By giving them a voice to stop an unproductive behavior, not only did a strong majority agree to stop cyberloafing, but those who had been cyberloafing (and even who voted against turning off the Internet) redeemed themselves by contributing to the team and working just as hard as the others.” [5]

As with most anything else in life, this issue is likely going to be about finding the right balance between work and play. Cyberloafing is an area of study that is probably going to become more prominent in the future as society becomes more and more "connected" in various aspects of life.