The Top Cyberloafing Activities of a Distracted Office Worker

US News

In January, you turned over a new leaf and resolved to be a more efficient worker. You started arriving at work on time. You were early and fully prepared for meetings. You've been responsive and attentive to the demands of clients and colleagues. You became a well-oiled working machine.

Then March Madness hit and it all went to pot.

Now, you're an attention-deficit-ridden cubicle cog, just going through the face-time motions at your desk as you stream college hoops and tweet your bracket frustrations. You're not working--come on, you're barely blinking. And you're hardly alone. A recent Kansas State University study published in the "Computers in Human Behavior" journal reveals that between 60 and 80 percent of an employee's time on the Internet is spent doing something other than work. The phenomenon of surfing the Web on the company dime has become so prevalent that it's inspired its own term: cyberloafing.

[See: 25 Career Mistakes to Banish for 2013.]

So what are some of the top cyberloafing activities in an office?

Checking personal email. This one might seem innocuous--in fact, many employees keep their personal email account open all day--but personal email is 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.

Social media. In 2012, Learnstuff.com released a shaming infographic detailing how websites like Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest are sapping our productivity: Facebook is the most popular time-wasting site; workers are interrupted once every 10.5 minutes by tweets and IMs; it takes approximately 23 minutes for workers to regroup after using a social media website; and each user is costing his or her company nearly $4,500 every year.

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 Bejeweled Blitz--that truly eke into corporate time. According to PCMag.com, 25 percent of Facebook's active users each month are playing games, which is a whopping number of people for a site that has more than 1 billion members.

Watching videos. The possibilities are endless. From Keyboard Cat to "Gangnam Style" and even KONY 2012, YouTube houses a trove of time-sucking videos, and it has a few imaging cousins that are also pulling in pageviews 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 favorite 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. In fact, the firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc. predicted that approximately 3 million employees would spend up to three hours per day streaming the NCAA basketball games this March, translating to at least $134 million in "lost wages" for the first two days of the tournament.

Shopping. Online shopping is one of the more common cyberloafing activities of office workers. Take, for instance, the Monday after Thanksgiving 2012, Cyber Monday, a workday for many and a date that Reuters reports Internet sales spiked 30.3 percent from the Cyber Monday in 2011. According to a CareerBuilder survey, 16 percent of workers in the United States were planning to catch some Cyber Monday sales in 2012, while 49 percent expected to do a little online holiday shopping in the office sometime in November and December.

[Read: 7 Productivity Traps for Overachievers to Avoid.]

Wedding planning. A 2012 survey by TheKnot.com and WeddingChannel.com determined that 1 in 3 brides begin planning more than 12 months before their big day, and all surveyed brides spent an average of 11 hours a week working on nuptial details in the last three months before getting married. Not all of those hours are personal time, however. A more recent survey conducted by wedding dress retailer David's Bridal, "What's on Brides' Minds," found that 77 percent of engaged women admit to using work hours to wedding plan.

Managing finances. KSU's study found that employees of all ages admit to cyberloafing, but that surfing indulgences varied. Older workers weren't tweeting and playing Words with Friends like their younger colleagues. Instead, they were indulging in a little money management. And with tax season in full bloom, the number of workers using their office's Web connection for filling out and filing Schedule As is bound to spike.

Job searching. There's a common saying among career experts that job searching is a full-time job in itself. But some short-timers are on the hunt for a new job while on the clock with an old one. Clearing the occasional long lunch with your boss for the purpose of interviewing, and even choosing to inform your manager that you're in the market for a new gig are appropriate ways to handle a job search while employed. Scanning job listings and filling out online applications from your cubicle, however, are not.

The purpose of being at work is to actually be at work, but breaks are also part of working, and are to be expected. "Some people choose to take multiple smoke breaks [during the workday], or they take a break to congregate at the water cooler," says Jack Cullen, president of the IT staffing and recruiting company Modis. "This is just another type of break."

Still, excessive personal use of the office Internet could have dire consequences. A recent Modis survey found that 30 percent of IT professionals admit their departments monitor employees who might be violating content policies. And 48 percent of IT professionals admit their company does some sort of banning, blocking or throttling of non-work Web content. Additionally, CareerBuilder reports that 25 percent of employers have fired a worker for cyberloafing.

"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 that are willing to give their full effort."

Here are some tips to help both employers and employees strike a better balance between cyberworking and cyberloafing:

For Employees ...

1. Set a schedule. Plan to take sporadic goof-off breaks during the day when you can take a walk, send a few texts and/or surf the Web. Then stick to just those allotted times.

2. Download a site blocker. Browser add-ons like LeechBlock (for Firefox users) and Nanny (for Chrome lovers), or websites like KeepMeOut.com are easy to install and use. Using these tools you can set up full blocks from some websites or establish time limits for browsing.

3. Use common sense. Your built-in cyberloafing breaks should be a few minutes, not a few hours. And always keep your speakers off or low just in case a site you visit uses tell-tale sounds. Also remember that while many sites are OK, some never are (if you don't know what NSFW means, it's time to look it up).

[See: 22 Ways to Be a Better Boss.]

For Employers ...

1. Be transparent about appropriate Internet use. Make sure that the office's policies on how to use the Web are known and accessible for all employees.

2. Anticipate dips in focus. Many employers expect lower productivity around the holidays and March Madness, or for other life events. "When I'm running a business, I'm going to expect productivity to go down if, for instance, someone is getting married," Lavinsky says. "What you need to do in a situation like that is put systems in place to keep employees accountable. For example, every week you could make sure that all employees, including the distracted engaged employee, make a to-do list. Be open with your employees that you know they have other things going on in their lives, but you want to work with them on what the goals for the week, and even the month, should be."

3. Stay flexible. Regularly update your company's list of banned or blocked sites, and welcome feedback from employees on what sites should and shouldn't be allowed.

4. Have perspective. A good manager is more focused on results than process. It's OK to cut some slack for your employees, particularly if the quality of their work isn't diminished. "You have employees doing work in off hours, so you have to expect that they're going to not be doing work during on hours," Lavinsky says.

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