A quick tip when assessing studies into behaviour in the workplace: take the number of hours people admit to spending online for personal reasons, multiply it by somewhere between two and 10, and you'll end up with something approaching a realistic figure. For example, the eye-popping statistic that emerged from two separate reports this week into social networking wasn't either of the hastily conjured estimates of lost productivity (£1.38bn a year in the UK, said one, while the other attributed £325m to Twitter usage within the M25 alone). It was more the figure of 40 minutes a week that people confessed to using it for. 40? A week? Like age or alcohol intake, internet usage at work is something that most people round downwards. Massively.
The question is, of course, whether the internet is simply replacing other, more traditional workplace distractions such as lunchtime drinking, pinging rubber bands about or staring wistfully at Chloë from human resources. From the seething anger that greets surveys such as the above, you'd think that inefficiency at work was some new evil on a par with stealing the office photocopier. But the reason it troubles boardrooms more than general messing about is that it's observable, measurable and controllable in a way that, say, daydreaming about Chloë isn't. So in come the controls; 49 per cent of councils now ban access to social networking sites, and a quick poll of my own on Twitter (I wasn't timewasting, honest) revealed lockdowns of varying severity in places where you might perhaps expect it for security reasons (government departments, investment banks) and others where you probably wouldn't (a local theatre, an estate agent, The Daily Express).
Facebook and Twitter certainly have addictive qualities that can become problematic if left unchecked. But access to personal email is also often withdrawn, ostensibly on grounds of security, but actually in the hope of improving time management. Another study this week, commissioned – perhaps unsurprisingly – by email provider GMX, concluded that personal emails provide occasional but essential boosts in morale; a third of respondents to the survey said that emails from friends helped them get through the day, while GMX's MD stated that access to personal email is "a valued way for workers to relieve the negative effects of work". Whether you believe that online socialising is an encroaching menace to the economy or not, increasingly powerful smartphones are allowing us to do all of the above regardless of our employer's web policy. Perhaps the next step in the war against work-shy employees will be to frisk everyone for iPhones at reception.
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