Did March Madness Make You More or Less Productive?

Photo: Jason Dean

For the past month, employees everywhere have spent chunks of their workday glued to the NCAA College Basketball championship games, which can now be viewed live online.  While “March Madness” represents a particularly good distraction, most people rely on the internet for distraction throughout the year, prompting many companies to restrict or block access to certain sites.  But do such restrictions actually work?

Maybe not, according to James Surowiecki:

“A new study, done at the University of Copenhagen, asked participants to perform a simple task—watch videos of people passing balls and count the number of passes. But first they were presented with a distraction. One group of participants had a funny video come up on their screens; the rest saw a message telling them that a funny video was available if they clicked a button, but they were told not to watch it. After ten minutes, during which people in the second group could hear those in the first laughing at the video, everyone set to the task of counting the number of passes. And the curious result was that those who hadn’t watched the comedy video made significantly more mistakes than those who had.”

Surowiecki ties this new research on the Internet and productivity to existing research on the limited nature of willpower, and suggests occasional brief “Internet breaks” for employees.  Readers, what do you think?  Does the internet make you more or less productive at work?

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  1. Greg says:

    Not particularly convinced that the “curious result” cries out to be interpreted as evidence that watching videos on the Internet improves performance. What about the negative effect of having to sit there for ten minutes doing nothing? Or the psychological effect of feeling left out of the “cool” laughing group?

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  2. Thorey Runarsdottir says:

    I’ve worked in a place where Facebook and/or YouTube were blocked and where they weren’t blocked. When I’m allowed to navigate the whole Internet without restrictions I’m much more productive. The reason is that I’m happier and can sort issues on the spot, e.g. send someone a message on Facebook or watch an instructional video on YouTube (which are becoming more and more common). If I can’t do these things issues and matters at hand will fill up your brain while you’re trying to work.
    Yes, some people spend enormous amount of time on Facebook, but the website by itself is not the problem, it’s the employee’s motivation.

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  3. Clancy says:

    I’ll let you know as soon as I’m done commenting on blogs and get back to work.

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  4. MainSpring Video says:

    I think – or would hope – that people respond well to having freedom to make their own decisions and be responsible for their own actions. You can look at the internet or not – if it’s interfering with your work, then the employee will have to answer to that. Personally I find it easier to stay on task when I have freedom to enjoy a few “internet breaks” here and there- but keep it under control. If my work internet was restricted I’d just find other distractions. My iphone, for example… Cheers!

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  5. Uthor says:

    I think I spend more time trying to get around the blocks at work than I do actually browsing distracting sites. It’s not like there’s a finite amount a webapges that I can distract myself with if I wanted to. I say let me have the few minutes here and there.

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  6. Joshua Northey says:

    Well one danger of not allowing employee downtime is what happened to me at Merrill. I was working overnights on SEC filings and we weren’t allowed to do it from home or on-call (which we would have preferred, and would have saved them money). The work was obviously very sporadic and seasonal, so much of the time we had to sit there all night with nothing to do (other times we had to work 70 hour weeks +).

    When the economy tanked in 2007 they suddenly had this big productivity/HR crackdown. No longer were we allowed to browse the internet. So most of us started bring books and ipods for podcasts. Then this was banned.

    I was much faster than my average co-workers (had 2-4 times the throughput depending on the type of filing), so I simply quit and got another job. I don’t know if anyone else did, but needlessly antagonizing productive employees is certainly one potential danger when micromanaging them too much.

    On the other hand I do know people who are much more productive when they don’t have internet access.

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  7. S Leers says:

    There are a number of online articles citing to the Surowiecki article in the New Yorker but I haven’t been able to find the cited study anywhere, including on the University of Copenhagen’s website. Does anyone know where this study was reported? Thanks!

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