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Loafing is often associated with lazily loitering or lethargically lounging. Now we have a newer term, associated with computers. Cyberloafing is when you loaf in the cyber world. Today’s column will probe its prevalence in Sri Lanka with associated pros and cons. Overview Cyberloafing is a slang term used to describe employees who surf the net, write e-mail or other internet-related activities at work that are not related to their job. These activities are performed during periods of time when they are being paid by their employer. The individual is called a cyberloaf(er), while the act is cyberloafing. There are other associated terms such as cyberslacking or goldbricking. The term goldbricking aptly highlights the key essence. According to Wikipedia, the term originates from the confidence trick of applying a gold coating to a brick of worthless metal. While an employee may look busy and occupied, he or she may add less value to the organisation as the focus is elsewhere. Mark Gimen, a staff writer for the Salon Technology website states that cyberloafing costs US employers $1 billion a year in computer resources. This is one clear example of its bad side, which is often highlighted. A recent Kansas State University study published in the ‘Computers in Human Behaviour’ journal reveals that between 60 and 80% of an employee’s time on the internet is spent doing something other than work. This could range from checking personal email to even personal financial transactions. Key forms of cyberloafing Based on the recent research findings, the following can be highlighted as the commonest forms of cyberloafing.
  • Checking personal email
Many employees keep their personal email account open all day. There is nothing wrong with it. Yet, as Jada A. Graves, an editor at US News, highlights, the issues arise when personal email becomes often the gateway distraction into other forms for cyberloafing. Opening up a daily emailed newsletter leads to catching up with rarely seen buddies and solidifying happy hour plans, and before you know it, you’ve neglected correspondence on your professional email account. Plus a lot of personal mail accounts host some form of instant messaging, which can either be efficient for interoffice communication, or inefficient for out-of-office chit chat. This is a very common occurrence is Sri Lanka, with the popularity of Gmail, Yahoo mail or even often-hacked Hotmail.
  • Social media
In 2012, Learnstuff.com released a document detailing how websites like Facebook and Twitter are reducing the productive time available to work. Facebook is the most popular time-wasting site; employees are interrupted once every 10.5 minutes by tweets and instant messages. As the report further reveals, it takes approximately 23 minutes for employees to regroup after using a social media website, and each user is costing his or her company nearly $ 4,500 every year. We hear several stories of “bad and ugly” use of Facebook in Sri Lanka, in the recent past. I have seen many employees start their day in office logging into Info Lanka to ready daily newspapers. This is a significant shift from buying a daily newspaper. There are Gossip Lanka and many other websites of that nature, offering a variety of entertainments.
  • Playing games
Scrolling down a Facebook newsfeed or updating your status only takes a few seconds. It’s some of Facebook’s other capabilities — like Candy Crush Saga and Bejewelled Blitz — that truly eat into corporate time. According to PCMag.com, 25% of Facebook’s active users each month are playing games, which is a whopping number of people for a site that has more than one billion members. We might have not gone into this extend in Sri Lanka, but there are cases where younger employees (generation Y) are more inclined to do so.
  • Watching videos
This has become very attractive. As reported by US News, YouTube contains a whole heap of “time-sucking” videos, and it has a few imaging cousins that are also pulling in page-views from those who should be working. Many major news outlets offer online streaming, particularly for important live events. Netflix, Hulu and HBO Go also offer streaming options for those hoping to keep up with their favourite movies and shows. CBSsports.com and ESPN.go.com provide online coverage of sporting events like March Madness, the Olympic Games or the World Cup. This is very popular in Sri Lanka, with watching cricket and news. When a tournament is on, a hidden window (to watch when the boss is not around) of Cricinfo is a popular occurrence in Sri Lanka. Also, it is not so uncommon to watch “forbidden scenes” from celebrities.
  • Shopping
Online shopping is one of the more common cyberloafing activities of office employees. According to a CareerBuilder survey, 16% of employees in the United States were planning to catch some Cyber Monday (a marketing term for the Monday after Thanksgiving week in November every year) sales in 2012, while 49% expected to do a little online holiday shopping in the office sometime in November and December. We are also making a strong headway with popular websites such as ikman.com, wow.com or anything.lk. Finding cheap airfares through websites is also becoming increasingly popular.
  • Managing finances
According to earlier cited Kansas University Study, US employees of all ages admit to cyberloafing, but that surfing indulgences varied. Older employees weren’t tweeting and playing Words with Friends like their younger colleagues. Instead, they were indulging in a little money management. Especially with the provision of online submission of taxes, the number of employees using their office’s Web connection for filling out and filing Schedule has become a common feature. We are also moving there with internet based billing provision offered by several leading banks in Sri Lanka. With the e-government initiatives, more facilities to pay dues through internet are becoming increasingly attractive.
  • Job searching
There are common websites that connect you to attractive job offers. Whilst there is no harm in searching for something better, doing that during the productive working hours is the issue. This is also becoming popular in Sri Lanka with Topjobs.lk and other websites. From cyberloafing to cyberworking One may ask whether cyberloafing is inevitable. That is of much relevance to Sri Lanka. I was teaching a course for public sector employees several years ago, with a distant learning component where the students had to download reading material. The majority of them were doing it during their working times, as they did not have internet access at home. The situation would have changed by now with more attractive offers of home internet. "Cyberloafing is prevalent in Sri Lanka, especially in the ICT sector. It is also gathering its momentum in both private and public organisations. Flexibility with regard to internet access and firmness with regard to website restrictions are both required in order to maintain productive workplace. Sri Lankan managers should be proactive and pragmatic in this respect" The subtle balance between cyberworking and cyberloafing is worthwhile to discuss. It is the tendency to get digressed, derailed or distracted while working with computers. The issues arise when it becomes excessive. Excessive personal use of the office internet could have dire consequences. A recent Modis survey in the USA found that 30% of IT professionals admit their departments monitor employees who might be violating content policies. And 48% of IT professionals admit their company does some sort of banning, blocking or throttling of non-work Web content. Additionally, CareerBuilder reports that 25% of employers have fired a worker for cyberloafing. Certain multinationals operating in Sri Lanka maintain comprehensive IT practices including restricted access to identified websites. Popular websites such as Cricinfo are available after working hours, with a time-linked sensing. The challenge here is to maintain a balance. “A good, motivated employee is going to be engaged in their work,” says Dave Lavinsky, President and founder of Growthink, a business planning and strategy consulting company. “Yes, they’re going to goof off sometimes, but for the most part, they’re going to be focused and you’re going to get a lot out of them. When companies choose to play Big Brother and heavily monitor computer use, they’re not going to have happy employees who are willing to give their full effort.” Positive uses of cyberloafing However negative it appears, there are positive aspects of cyberloafing as well. According to a study done in the National University of Singapore, cyberloafing can actually serve as coping strategy against negative workplace experiences. Their research shows that although e-mailing which are not work-related can be time wasters, internet browsing may have positive benefits. Enhancing knowledge and gaining inspiration for innovative practices are some other benefits of cyberloafing. It can give a sense of relaxation to a stressful employee or a way to get connected with someone in a different time-zone during working hours. Getting updated on weather, or helping spouse at home through an urgent internet transaction could be some other possibilities. “In formulating internet policies, managers must recognise that blanket policies that prohibit all forms of personal web usage are not effective, and excessive monitoring is likely to lead to employees’ retaliation and stifle legitimate internet use,” concludes the Singaporean study. “Instead, managers and companies should work toward implementing acceptable internet use policy.” In other words, there has to be somewhat flexibility with certain restrictions. If the organisation practices Management by Objectives (MBO) with key performance indicators (KPIs) for employees, then whether they cyberloaf or cyberwork will clearly reflect in their performance. A clear message of such individual responsibility should be communicated to all employees. Way forward Cyberloafing is prevalent in Sri Lanka, especially in the ICT sector. It is also gathering its momentum in both private and public organisations. Flexibility with regard to internet access and firmness with regard to website restrictions are both required in order to maintain productive workplace. Sri Lankan managers should be proactive and pragmatic in this respect. (Dr. Ajantha Dharmasiri works at the Postgraduate Institute of Management. He can be reached on ajantha@pim.lk or www.ajanthadharmasiri.info.)

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