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Driven to Distraction—What Causes Cyberloafing at Work?

By Wisconsin School of Business

June 25, 2015

Study from Wisconsin School of Business suggests better screening of job candidates and HR policies promoting fairness can improve workplace engagement

With more employees being connected through virtual work teams, more offices offering flexible work arrangements, and more personal electronic devices everywhere, the opportunities for cyberloafing at work—using the Internet for non-work activities—are plentiful and creating serious problems for many businesses.

A new study from the Wisconsin School of Business at the University of Wisconsin-Madison examines two key personality traits—conscientiousness and emotional stability—that affect the likelihood of cyberloafing and looks at certain workplace conditions that may increase employee engagement. Maria Triana, associate professor of management and human resources with the Wisconsin School of Business, Kwanghyun Kim of Korea Univesity, Kwiyoung Chung of Western University, and Nahyun Oh of the University of Missouri, offer the following suggestions for organizations seeking to reduce online distractions as a means of increasing productivity:

  • Screen candidates for conscientiousness and emotional stability during job interviews.
  • Create appropriate HR practices and effectively communicate with employees so they feel people are treated fairly.
  • Have a policy that personal devices and non-work e-mail can be checked during breaks or only as needed throughout the day to minimize distractions. 

“Both conscientiousness and emotional stability are strong predictors for job performance, and their presence would suggest a reduced likelihood of cyberloafing,” says Triana. “But we found that even a conscientious employee with a strong work ethic will engage in cyberloafing if they feel there is a lack of justice or fair treatment in the workplace. That means it is important for organizations to focus not only on those personal traits, but in creating a work environment where employees believe they are treated fairly and equitably.”

Triana says the amount of time employees spend cyberloafing is estimated to range from three hours a week to as much as 2.5 hours per day. Cyberloafing can not only lead to declines in productivity, but can lead to problems in information systems and data security, such as network bandwidth overload, spyware infections, and virus malware being introduced through illicit software downloading and surfing unsecure websites. Organizations that have jobs requiring high levels of data security and regular oversight or surveillance need to consider selecting employees with traits that make them less inclined to cyberloaf.

The research found that conscientious individuals seek to fulfill their obligations, are normally centered on task accomplishment, and are less likely to be distracted and cross the line into cyberloafing. Emotionally stable people have less need to spend time and energy regulating their emotions, have more capacity to allocate resources to tasks at hand, and are less likely to lose focus.

The research also found that even conscientious employees are not immune to cyberloafing in certain cirucmstances. When they perceive a lack of justice in the workplace, they were found to engage in moderate to high levels of cyberloafing. But when they feel they are treated fairly, conscientious employees tend to cyberloaf less.

Another workplace condition the research considered was the level of employee empowerment. When empowerment is high, people generally have a good attitude about work and are more likely to be satisfied. But even in high empowerment situations, cyberloafing was constant and relatively high, suggesting the temptation to cyberloaf may be too great, even for a conscientious employee. For that reason, Triana says having sensible policies in place to keep cyberloafing under control without taking away the benefits associated with empowering employees may be an effective approach.

Triana’s research appears in Human Resource Management and is available online here.