The Economic Effects of Digital Distractions

The 21st century is also known as the information age. The biggest companies in the world today sell nothing but information. Consider the case of Google, Facebook, and Twitter, etc. that have billions of dollars in market capitalization. Every company, big or small, now has a social media department. The job of the people in these departments is to manage the image of the company on social media. The workers in such jobs are required to spend part of their day on these social networking sites doing productive work.

However, for the vast majority of the workforce in the world, social media is a distraction. It might seem to be a minor and harmless one at first. However, that is not the case. The Economist magazine has researched in this regard. They estimate that logging onto social media costs the US economy a mindboggling 650 billion dollars. When statistics were converted to a per worker basis, the number came to $4500! Hence, every worker in the United States is annually wasting $4500 of their employer’s money loitering around on social media. The problem is apparently much bigger than it appears to be at first glance. In this article, we will have a closer look at how these digital distractions wreak havoc on worker productivity.

Important Statistics about Social Media

  • 13% of the world’s population and 45% of the American population is active on Facebook. The same can be said about YouTube which registers more than 4 billion views per year. An average worker in the United States spends about 24 hours a month on Facebook. More than 50% of the time spent online is during working hours. Americans collectively spent over 12 billion hours watching Netflix. Once again, a lot of this time overlapped with the working hours.

  • Over 64% of all employees in the world visit websites that are not related to work from their workplace. Typically they visit social media and e-commerce websites.

  • An average user spends about 30% of time spent online on social media sites. Most users are not aware of the time they spend on these sites because it is not done in one sitting. Instead, users casually log on several times in the day without realizing the amount of time that they are spending on these sites.

  • Students spend an average of three hours per day on social media. That is alarming given the fact that they spend only two hours a day studying! Also, studies conducted show a remarkable difference in the GPA of students who are active on social media vs. students who are not active.

  • Studies conducted show that workers are interrupted once every 11 minutes by tweets, Whatsapp messages or Facebook messages. Workers typically respond to such messages. This results in a digital conversation with friends and colleagues. As a result, an average worker takes about 15 minutes to get back to the task at hand. Some workers are therefore spending more time on social media then they do working! As a result of this, companies are experiencing declining productivity.

The Solution

The straightforward solution to this is to remove the ambiguity about social media use from the workplace. Companies need to formulate, publish and communicate policies that specifically explain if social media can be used in the workplace and if so for how long.

These policies will vary widely depending upon the nature of the job. For instance, manufacturing jobs need higher attention to detail. Hence it is dangerous to allow even bare minimal use of social media. The same cannot be said of service-related jobs.

If users are working at a back office, they could be allowed to take a break to visit these websites. However, the time spent on these websites must be included in their leisure hours and not the work hours. The problem arises when workers can spend a large amount of time online without accounting for it.

The ideal way to implement this would be to block these websites on the company network and have one or two shared workstations where these websites are active. Hence, when users log into this workstation the time spent there will be recorded. Also, when social media is not readily available at the user’s fingertips, the usage tends to drop sharply.

Apart from such deadlines, companies should ensure that the task given to the worker fills their working hours completely. They can conduct time and motion studies to estimate the amount of time required for a job. Hence, if a worker can complete the tasks faster, they should be rewarded with leisure time which may include social media usage. Companies should accept social media as an integral part of life in the 21st century. They only need to manage its interference with work.

Lastly, it is important for the companies to ensure that they honor privacy laws while enforcing their policies. Companies do have the right to stop workers from accessing certain websites. However, they do not have the right to collect personal information about the worker without their consent.

To sum it up, social media has become a workplace menace. Companies need to adapt quickly by formulating policies that regulate its usage. In the absence of such regulations, workplace productivity is likely to be hit further.

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