The Reality of Personal Internet Use at Work

Alex Miltsov - Workplace Unplugged

What are the real implications of personal internet use at work? McGill University’s Alex Miltsov breaks down some of the biggest questions surrounding the growing phenomenon.

Alex Miltsov is a PhD candidate at the Department of Sociology at McGill University and is currently studying the use of digital technologies at work.His current research project examines the ways workers use digital media and technologies for work-related and personal purposes in the workplace. He analyzes how the digitization of the workplace affects workers’ experiences and interactions, their private and social lives, and their work-life balance.

We started off by asking Alex what kind of effect personal internet use at work has had on employees and employers in the workplace.

Alex: What is unique about today is the rise of digital technologies. We are seeing a profoundly new way of engaging in certain personal activities in the workplace. For employers, the main concern is productivity and there is a lot of research on that starting in the early nineties: to what extent personal internet use affects productivity.

The tricky part is that it is difficult to really measure productivity in digital workplaces, it was much easier in industrial settings where you would have some kind of output. How do you measure productivity in digitalized work spaces? That in itself is a longstanding debate that hasn’t been resolved yet. Also, there is no scientific consensus on the link between personal internet use at work and productivity. Some research shows when you introduce digital technologies in the workplace and when you allow employees to use them for personal reasons — productivity suffers. Other research shows if you ban Facebook, social media, other kinds of personal activities, then you alienate your workforce and that leads to diminishing productivity.

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When it comes to employees, this is not a new debate per se. If you look at the literature in labour studies, the questions of agency, power, autonomy, and flexibility have been some of the key issues in the labour movement in North America and many workplaces around the world. Taking personal time while at work is a manifestation of a certain kind of agency and autonomy for workers.

There are many different reasons why someone would use a smartphone or internet-enabled device while at work. It could just be a matter of figuring out if your kids are alright. It could be a matter of personal resistance — some workers are dissatisfied with some kind of condition in the workplace and in order to retaliate, to take some time back, they engage in personal activities at work. For other employees, it is just a matter of procrastination. In our age, there is more and more task-oriented work so whenever you have different tasks, you have periods of time when you are inactive and there is no work. 

internet use in the workplace

In your research, have you seen what kind of things people are reading or watching online at work?

Alex: We know that e-mail is by far the most popular thing workers use for personal digital technology at work and we also see that there is now a spike in social media use. The trouble here is that, in some workplaces, employees are required to use social media to promote their company or products to do something for the employer. The line between personal social media use and work-related social media use is getting blurred in some cases.

It can also be multi-screening when you’re doing some kind of work, but you’re passively watching some kind of show or listening to a podcast as well. This is another area where it is difficult to distinguish between times of activity or inactivity. When you’re multitasking, how can one say that you are not being productive? The counter-argument can be: “that podcast actually helps me do my work.” This is where it gets complicated when it comes to policy setting and how employers should treat those types of behaviours at work because there are a lot of blurred lines.

multi screen passive listening prodctivity workplace internet use

What do you think are some of the biggest misconceptions about personal internet use at work?

Alex: It’s really impossible to treat all personal internet use in the workplace as one phenomenon. There are so many different dimensions and sides to the story. People do it for different reasons because they have different life situations. Most workers understand that their major task is to do their work. It’s only a minority of workers who actively sabotage their work by engaging in personal activities in the workplace. There is a shared idea that “I’m here to do my work.”

If you ban all social media and personal e-mail use, people will still use them but they will be creative and find ways of doing it. By circumventing certain prohibitions imposed by the employer, it will actually take the employee more time but they will still be doing it. This situation may alienate the workforce and may create potential conflict. If you ban social media and personal e-mail, you can actually hurt your company as an employer. There should be a very realistic picture as an employer as to why, how and to what extent people use these technologies as work.

There is only a minority of workers who are using these technologies for more than 40 percent of their work time. Overall, maybe 10 or 15 percent of work time is dedicated to personal internet use at work.

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Have you come across any corporate culture success stories from not restricting personal internet use at work?

Alex: We all know about Google and their idea of letting their employees take one day off to do their personal projects. They can take a day off and do their personal projects at work and use the company’s resources. Companies that have a reasonable approach and understand that people need to take a mental break and let them use technology for personal use — those companies experience less alienation in general.

It has to be negotiated in that particular workplace. You can’t just say “you can take as much time off as you want,” it has to be within certain reasonable limits. It can be beneficial for employers to let employees take a mental break because they can check their personal e-mails and social media, but then their employees don’t go anywhere else, they don’t have to go and find a creative way to circumvent certain restrictions. They take a much needed mental break so they can continue working.

To conclude, where do you see this phenomenon in the next five to ten years?

Alex: With more and more digital technologies and algorithms being introduced in the workplace, we are seeing that a lot of work that used to require human input is or has already disappeared. Now we are seeing a task-oriented approach where you do some work intensively and then there are moments of inactivity — that is the new normal.

I would say, because of those extended times of inactivity, we can predict this in the workplace: we will see more personal internet use. Nowadays, beyond wages and compensation, employees really value flexibility and autonomy. It boils down to being in charge of your work and your work conditions. Employees are increasingly looking for workplaces where they can exercise some autonomy and flexibility. Because of that, employers are recognizing that this is an important dimension and will allow more personal internet use at work.

Keep up with Alex on Twitter and LinkedIn.

How do you think people should approach personal internet use at work? Tell us what you think in the comment section below.

Photos: Wilfred Iven, Andreas Palmer, Shutterstock