Mythbusting the productivity hole of the Internet and Social Media

Facebook may not be the black hole of workplace productivity many consider it to be, as research conducted by Swinburne University of Technology with web security company MailGuard shows.

The research partnership between MailGuard and Dr Rajesh Vasa, a lecturer in the Faculty of Information and Communication Technologies, has revealed that the average employee spends between 30 and 60 minutes online for personal reasons each day.

Although 40 per cent of people in the sample of approximately 50,000 used Facebook in the six-month period analysed, the average time spent on the site was just a few minutes.

While other studies have drawn on consumer data and qualitative research, this is the first to scrutinise individual behaviour over an extended period.

The uses of internet for personal reasons tend to be comparatively banal: people check the news, weather and transport timetables. Sports news sites are particularly popular and online shopping is rising.

Only 20 per cent of staff were classified by the researchers as ‘heavy explorers’, exceeding a baseline of ‘normal’ that was set at 200 websites a month. It’s at this level that staff productivity is considered to deteriorate.

Dr Vasa’s primary research at the faculty focuses on the behaviour of computer programmers when they build software. He helps companies who subcontract computer work to assess whether billing is correct and if the project is being managed at the declared pace. But the methodology easily transfers to web usage.

“I study how people use tools to build software and the browser is just another piece of software. The data that we store and the maths we use for analysis are identical. It’s the same maths that economists use to detect whether people are getting richer or poorer,” Dr Vasa says.

The anonymous data, provided with the consent of client companies, tracked staff browsing habits from 2009.
MailGuard CEO Craig McDonald expects the usage patterns to continue to evolve. Twitter was used by just 2.6 per cent of individuals in January 2009, but that had grown to 17.1 per cent by year’s end.

Mr McDonald does not believe the information warrants employers tightening the screws on their staff:
“How do you harness the experiences of heavy explorers who also achieve high productivity for the benefit of the business? It’s about working smartly in the new terrain, rather than banning social media and frustrating some of your best performers because one or two employees are misusing Facebook.”

The only hole I would pick in this research is that it only looks at personal use of the Web using their employers Internet connection; it doesn’t account for people’s personal mobile Internet access, so its conceivable that people are spending more time online than is visible in the data used. However, its good to see some data (and Australian research too) that challenges the assumptions about personal use of the Web at work.

The sentiment of McDonald’s conclusions are correct too, which is what we should be talking about.

Of course, for the companies who are building businesses out social media FUD I’m sure this data won’t be seen so positively. Its a real shame they get more coverage in the media and this news barely made a ripple.