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Net working

Saturday, 25 April, 2009

Recently Trevor Cairney blogged some thoughts about internet usage at work and whether it is stealing time from your employer. While I agree with the spirit of what Trevor wrote (that is, that if you are Christian, you should seek to work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men [Col 3:23] and maintain a good work ethic), I felt that Trevor's post simplified the whole topic a little too much, and didn't show enough understanding of how people use the internet and its applications, and how those things can even enhance your work. It seemed quite legalistic in its application. I keep thinking of what Alain de Botton said in his talk at the Opera House last Sunday (were he promoted The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, which I must read some time)—that we have a very poor understanding of how and why people work. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Let's start first about what we are talking about and what we aren't. With internet usage, we are talking about surfing, Facebooking, Twittering, Skyping, blogging, spending time on forums, instant messaging, playing games and emailing. With unauthorised internet usage at work, we're talking about all internet activity that has nothing to do with work. Please note this has less to do with the particular thing you're doing than why you're doing it. Obviously if you're writing an article about blogging, you need to do your research by reading some blogs; if you're the moderator of a forum, you need to be reading that forum and monitoring what's going on; if your office interacts with clients on Skype or instant messenger, you're going to have to use those applications; if you're promoting a book, a CD or a movie or some such thing, or if having a bit of a higher profile is useful in your industry (like actors, writers and even talent scouts for Marvel comics), social networking applications like Twitter and Facebook are going to be helpful to you. Certain internet activity falls under the category of “authorised” work, and that sort of thing no one can argue with.

It's where you start treading on the grey area between “authorised” (see above) and “unauthorised” (i.e. spending hours and hours on the internet doing things that have nothing to do with work) that it becomes a little tricky. In my opinion, there are certain ways of using the internet that actually boost productivity. Here are five:

  1. Use the internet as a brain break: Breaks are good for productivity—particularly when you're stuck. Sometimes it helps to stop what you're doing and do something else for a while, then come back to what you're doing fresh. This falls under the theological category of rest: rest is important because it enables you to function better when you're doing other things. Sure, it's important to rest from your computer—to get up, stretch your legs, maybe go for a walk, and so on. But you don't have to do that every time. What is wrong with taking those five minutes to check Facebook/Twitter, etc.? This study argues that this type of usage helps employees to function better in their jobs.
  2. Use the internet as a buffer when you're moving between various tasks: This is related to my last point, but it's slightly different. I think it's fair to say that in most jobs, you're not doing the same thing all day; you usually have a variety of tasks that you move between throughout the course of your work hours. Sometimes it's not easy to move between them—particularly if they are very different. To go back to Alain de Botton, there are some jobs that are more like washing the dishes or gardening: they are made up of discrete tasks and they have achievable goals, thus resulting in greater satisfaction. But there are other jobs that are not as satisfying. Ministry is a prime example: at times, it can be broken down into discrete tasks (e.g. call this person, put this person's details into the database, meet up with this person), but sometimes it can't (e.g. share the gospel with at least one person today, encourage this person in godliness, expand my knowledge of penal substitutionary atonement). Furthermore, not all those tasks are easily achievable. If you've been “washing the dishes” and you move to “doing ministry”, you usually need some sort of transition or down time to get settled. Think of it like high school: the bell rings, you pack up your bag, you walk to the next class, find your desk and unpack your stuff again. Using the internet for five minutes in between tasks fulfils that function and helps ease the transition for you.
  3. Use the internet as a motivator: Unfortunately, the nature of work is that it's not all fun and games (Gen 3:17-19). It's often difficult and frustrating and painful. Most of us are not in the privileged position where we enjoy what we do. There may be aspects of our jobs that we enjoy, but there are also other aspects of our jobs that we find very hard. When faced with a difficult or tedious task, sometimes it can help if you hold out the internet as a “carrot on a stick”—that is, say to yourself, “If I finish X, Y and Z, then I can go and play on the internet for a little while”. Of course, a lot of other things can be used as carrots, but why not the internet at work? Alain de Botton says that we're becoming more and more specialised in what we do, which is a good thing as far as capitalism is concerned. However, it means that we tend to lose sight of the big picture and where what we're doing fits into it. If our job is something menial like data entry, it can be hard to find meaning in it because it's only one small part of the greater whole of what the company does. De Botton reckons that a lot of what managers have to do these days is keep their employees motivated and happy so that they will work well for them. It seems to me that acceptable internet usage at work should play a part in that.
  4. Use the internet to socialise: People need people. A healthy amount of socialising is an integral part to any workplace; you don't want the sort of environment where people come in, lock themselves in their offices and don't speak to anyone all day. Chances are, it will make them miserable and that, in turn, will affect the quality of their work. In addition, most people don't have jobs that isolate them from the rest of the world; they need to work with other people, and things like socialising and small talk are the lubricant that make certain work transactions easier and more harmonious. (Mind you, if you're freelancing, sometimes it's just you all by yourself with no one to talk to all day. Social networking sites can help you stay in touch with people and they become almost like office banter so that your days seem less isolated.) Work is not just about tasks; it's also about relationships. For certain people and certain types of jobs, it can be helpful for them to use the internet to socialise during break times—keep up with their Facebook friends by reading the news feed or writing on their walls; stay abreast of what's happening in people's lives through Twitter; see what someone else has been thinking about on their blog, and so on. One of the things about the internet is that socialising doesn't have to happen in real time any more (some would say that this is a bad thing but I think it depends on how you look at it). Two people do not have to occupy the same space at the same time to relate; they can communicate across pixels, bits and bytes, and it's still meaningful and useful in relational terms.
  5. Use the internet as a focuser: This applies mostly to Twitter and it might just be a psychological thing that only certain people will find helpful. Twitter asks the question, “What are you doing?” Of course, not all tweets have to be about that, but that's the starting point. And sometimes, out of the plethora of different things that you need to do—all of which are marked as both “important” and “urgent”—it can be helpful to commit yourself to one by Tweeting, “I am ...”, etc.

Here are some related thoughts and points:

One last point: If you do find that you're losing your motivation to work, maybe it's worth examining the reasons behind your lack of motivation. Is it trouble with your colleagues or problems with your boss? Is it convoluted and difficult procedures, or unrealistic expectations of what your role involves? Are you then using the internet as a means of escape from these problems? Perhaps it's better to resolve some of those problems so that your working life is happier and healthier. Or perhaps it's time you started looking for a new job ...

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Thanks for the tips Karen!

I myself (like right now) get distracted very easily. I find that when I’m tired or I’ve been at something for too long, I get distracted with internet stuff (such as FB, Twitter, news, etc).

But I guess the same could be said of TV or even daydreaming. But yes, thank you for your comments! (I’m installing Self-Control as we speak!)

All this time, I’ve been thinking, “Who is this Alain de Botton?”, and I’ve just realised he’s the British man that I’ve watched on Insight (SBS) and Lateline (ABC) this week. And he was talking about work on both programs. Interesting thoughts.

Posted by Elsie on 25 April, 2009 4:32 PM

I’ve recently installed Freedom - I find myself getting too distracted by the internet.  However, when I used Freedom, I found myself getting distracted by the fact that I couldn’t access the internet to check things I needed to check!  I sometimes find it helpful to set an online timer - I work hard, and then when it goes off, I can take a short break.

My freedom app isn’t working… Self-control works. But you can only add url’s individually. Ah man. Back to work.

Hi Karen, thanks for this post that was prompted by my post on the CASE blog. I enjoyed your discussion about the benefits and uses of the internet at work. As an avid user of the internet (since its inception) who writes 3 blogs and uses it constantly, I appreciate all the wonderful things it offers.  But my post wasn’t about its benefits.  I was asking some pretty straightforward ethical questions. You admit in your own post that the internet can be misused at work. And the comments so far on your post acknowledge that the internet can be a distraction in life. I was challenging my readers to consider their actions as workers in the same way they should consider their actions in all areas of their life, that is, in the Ephesians 4-5 sense of “walking as children of light”, of being different to the world, including their fellow workers.  I don’t think it is ‘legalistic’ to question ourselves in every aspect of our lives. As I indicated in my post, of course work for many people has flexibility built into it, and yes some employers are happy to allow us to make judgments about how we use our time (as an aside, I’d suggest that is often because they know that some of us spend too many hours at work).  But, I think my basic question still holds up, are we doing what we’re paid to do and is our boss happy with this.  There is a temptation for us to assume that all workers have the same flexible work practices that people in ministry, academia and even publishing might have.  I was a bit troubled by your qualifier before you list all the benefits of internet use:

“It’s where you start treading on the grey area between “authorised” (see above) and “unauthorised” (i.e. spending hours and hours on the internet doing things that have nothing to do with work) that it becomes a little tricky.”

I think you’ve missed my point. I don’t think this is a ‘grey area’. All workers have employment contracts that define their work and what is expected of them. It is a legal agreement between employer and worker. If our practices sit outside this work agreement then we are breaking the agreement and we should cease or negotiate new employment terms with our boss.  In practical terms, we’d at least chat to them about our internet use. My concern in my post was not about counting the minutes and hours each day, but simply to challenge readers to consider whether they might be using time that they are paid for in ways that don’t meet their employer’s expectations.  All employees need to consider this question, even Christians. Anyway, thanks for the post, Trevor

I totally agree with Trevor, as an employer I have clearly defined tasks for my employees. I want the work done ASAP and to good quality, if they are enjoying their tasks they should be completely dedicated to them.
If I have one employee spending 1 hour per day on facebook/msn/etc, then that 1 hour they are “stealing” from me and they are reducing their productivity at the same time.
It also shows their work ethic isn’t up to scratch and reflects upon their attitude.

I was a bit troubled by your qualifier before you list all the benefits of internet use:

“It’s where you start treading on the grey area between ‘authorised’ (see above) and ‘unauthorised’ (i.e. spending hours and hours on the internet doing things that have nothing to do with work) that it becomes a little tricky.”

I meant tricky for the employer, who may not be used to seeing things this way. As Alain de Botton points out, most employers view work along the lines of the industrial model and don’t seem to see that certain things like the internet can help you in your work. It wasn’t a “qualifier”; it was a comment about the way most employers view work. They would view my five ways of boosting productivity through the internet as falling into the category of wasting time at work when I am arguing that it doesn’t; it helps employees work. I’m sure we agree that employees need to take breaks because breaks help them be more productive; what’s wrong with checking Facebook during your break as opposed to going to the kitchenette and making yourself a cup of coffee? And in a couple of minutes, the break is over and you return to work.

A related issue is trust: employers need to be able to trust employees to carry out the responsibilities of their jobs in the allotted time frame. If an employee shows himself/herself to be trustworthy and productive in all those matters, then their employer can rest assured that they will be self-controlled in all things internet-y and that they will use the internet responsibly at work. Of course, it’s the ones with no self-control who ruin things for everyone ...

” what’s wrong with checking Facebook during your break as opposed to going to the kitchenette and making yourself a cup of coffee? “

What is wrong is that facebook doesn’t help them to complete their task, it is a waste of time and I don’t want any of my employees using it.
I don’t see how any argument can be made to support facebook increasing your productivity, at least in the area I work in which is computer programming.

Having coffee may help them to socialize in the workplace, as they make it, as they talk, and bond as a team. Also coffee acts as a drug to increase attention and performance.

I pay a Chinese worker to work for me at $12 USD per hour and I can see her screen at all times through the internet, I don’t see her using facebook or msn when she is working for me. When she is not working for me, she can use it - but she logs off the time tracking system when that happens.
She’s very effective for me. So why would I bother to hire a more expensive western worker who’s going to waste time on msn and facebook?

Of course I’ll go for the cheaper, more hard working person, which is what I do.

“breaks help them be more productive”

There is no evidence that breaks help people to be more productive, that is just wishful thinking. The best programmers I know don’t take breaks.

I’m so glad Philip that you are not my boss! You sound like the kind of person who resents it if their employees need to take time off to look after sick children or have trouble focusing at work if they have had problems outside of work.

There *is* evidence that taking breaks increase productivity. Those programmers you refer to are going to give themselves RSI by typing and sitting for so long in the same position. Once they get RSI they won’t be the productive employees you want them to be. So it is a false economy.

Human beings are not machines stop treating your employees like machines!

Posted by alison p on 29 April, 2009 7:03 PM

If people had troubles outside of work, its not professional to bring it to the workplace.
Do you know what hours many people work in Hong Kong? Often people work 8.30pm to 9pm and weekends as well. These people don’t have a life outside of work, so they don’t have any problems to bring to work.
The best programmers don’t take a break, they are not really human anymore as far as I can tell.

It relates to the nature of the work & employment agreement, as well. For example, is it piecework? hourly wage? annual salary? If I’m paid per year and expected do a certain amount of work in that time, it’s different than if I’m paid per hour and only expected to work in that hour. One of our IT guys explained the difference between support (secretarial = wage) and producer (lawyers = salary) access restrictions on this basis.

Eg secretaries can only access facebook after hours. I can access it during hours because I will have to do the work anyway. I cannot, however, access your blog during hours so it is obviously a much worse timewaster smile



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