You could get a lot more done if your employees would just get off the Internet and get to work, right? Some estimate that time spent not working results in $130 billion (with a b) in lost productivity. So the last thing you want is your employees on Facebook or personal email. (Reading Inc.com is, of course, always good for your business.)
But a new study done by a team of economists reports that, even if they're working, it's the the temptation of the forbidden Internet that actually lowers their productivity. I'm always skeptical of research involving 60 volunteers, who are undoubtedly college students who had to volunteer for a study to get credit for their introductory psychology classes. Even so, the results are intriguing: They showed that concentration dropped when there was a video that the participants wanted to watch but were told not to.
The theory is, the energy to resist temptation detracted from their ability to focus on the task. Lesson: If you just let them watch the video, they can then focus on the task at hand.
I'm sure that is true. Any time we're focused on something other than the task at hand, we're more likely to make mistakes. But the unspoken problem here is not the temptation itself but the idea that the manager is going to swoop in and discipline them for taking a break. The authors of the study latched on to the Internet as the example of how this plays out in the workplace, but the reality is, the Internet is only one small attention sinkhole. Co-workers, planning your kid's birthday party, last night's episode of Downton Abbey, and everything else under the sun can also be a distraction to your employees. I think it's more of an issue of micromanagement.
So, with all these things competing for your employees' attention, just how do you increase productivity? I say, let them be grownups.
Don't say, "No Internet for you!" Not because it's a waste of time, but because grownups should be monitoring themselves. You should be looking at results and not monitoring minute-by-minute productivity. When a problem is happening with the result, you deal with that.
The reality is, some people need absolute silence and can concentrate on a project for hours without taking a break. Other people work better with music and with frequent interruptions, be it with other humans or the Internet. Some work best in an office environment. Others work best at home. Some people do their best thinking in the morning. Others are brilliant only after 10 p.m.
Depending on your business's needs, you may need only people who can work well on the same schedule as you, or you may just need good work, whenever it happens. So, monitoring Internet habits (impossible with the advent of smartphones anyway), or demanding that everyone show up at the same time--because you work best at that moment--is not going to increase the productivity level.
What works is focusing on results. If your employees are nonexempt, you do have to pay them by the hour for their work (and pay overtime, when applicable), but if they are exempt employees (that is, professionals or managerial or outside sales workers), let them be grownups. Set expectations. If problems come up, address the problems. If their work is otherwise good, who cares if they check Facebook eight times per day?
You want the best results for your business, so let your employees have the flexibility to work the way they work best. Not the way you work best.