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Internet abuse in the workplace

Constructive Approaches to Internet Recreation in the Workplace


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  • "The difference between play and what is regarded as serious employment should be not a difference between the presence and absence of imagination, but a difference in the materials with which imagination is occupied."
    John Dewey, Democracy and Education, 1916

Sociologist Donald Roy's "banana time" notion [5] captures how employees have made workplaces more tolerable by participating in off-task camaraderie. Banana time was the collectively determined break time of factory workers, the start of which was signaled with a lunch box banana. Decades later, the Internet has supplied new dimensions to workplace recreation. It infuses opportunities for diversion into everyday work contextsalthough the individuals with whom one enjoys banana time can be many miles distant. Online games can be seen on workstations in nearly every organization, and growing numbers of employees regularly access online sports scores. Workplaces have become more "porous" and permeableintegrating more influences from the outside worldas individuals engage in such online diversions as trading stocks or viewing images of their children in day-care centers. Availability of these activities has brought the potential for abuse but also new opportunities. Constructive use of online recreation and play can enhance many workplaces and perhaps ultimately make them more productive.

Many organizations today demand high levels of creativity and flexibility of mind, but also withhold the means through which individuals can gain fresh perspectives. Managers who expect employees not to use the Internet for some amount of off-task activity severely misjudge the nature of workplace lifewhich is solidly infused in online interaction. Depriving people of opportunities for Internet recreation in some cases excludes the possibility of nearly any form of diversion from assigned responsibilities.

This article proposes that these complex issues be resolved through participatory approaches, involving workgroups in discussions as to what constitutes "constructive recreation" as well as in development of effective and fair policies. This discourse can also ultimately increase levels of trust among team members and between employees and management. Enabling the constructive use of online recreation is certainly not a panacea for workplace ills. However, it can be part of overall strategies to manage people through mutually agreed upon goal-setting and assessment of outcomesrather than by what they simply appear to be doing.

Uncertainty and suspicion concerning online recreation can impede progress toward common goals. Some hard-line policies against the personal use of the Internet are so nebulous that nearly anyone can be deemed in violation, thus creating the potential for selective managerial enforcement. Much of the rhetoric and advertising copy associated with workplace computing incorporates recreational imageries and motifs, which can send misleading signals to employees. A number of individuals have already had significant experience combining work with online recreation; convincing them that hard work cannot be combined with online play is a tough sell. Telecommuters returning to organizational settings are often not entrusted with the autonomy to engage in online breaks at appropriate timeslatitude they take for granted when doing the same tasks in their home offices. Many young people first learned about computing through video games and took online breaks during their college studies. Wireless Internet applications add more complexities to these issues, further increasing the porousness of organizations and making employee access to recreation less dependent on systems controlled by their managers.

If engaged in constructively, online recreation can aid in awakening creativity and increasing well-being, just as appropriate and timely face-to-face diversions have restored employees' energies over the past decades. However, some individuals may not be able to deal with online recreation constructively. They indeed will use it in ways that affect their organizations and themselves negatively, just as some individuals cannot perform adequately on the job for other reasons. Managers and employees should strive together to harness online recreation toward positive ends, rather than condemning or seeking to stifle it completely.

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What is "Constructive Recreation"?

Online recreation has already served many supportive purposes in organizations; games can be used to help decrease computer anxiety and encourage experimentation [3]. What would make online recreation optimally beneficial to individuals, project teams, and the organization as a whole? To start the discussion: recreation is "constructive" when it is in synch with pending work responsibilities, allowing individuals to use time not consumed by workplace demands in ways that equip them to face future tasks with greater energy and expanded perspectives. Constructive recreation is also in keeping with legal and technological constraints, as exemplified by the organizations allowing online recreation but placing specific limits concerning content and timing [7].

Recreation is also constructive to the extent in which it is responsive to the overall culture of the organization and sensitive to the needs and values of other workplace participants (including freedom from harassment). Requirements of project team members in terms of scheduling are especially important to recognize since the synchronization and sustained involvement of everyone are required during critical periods. Along with its other aspects, recreation is constructive if it provides intellectual and psychological stimulation or support, the sustenance often needed to take on tough challenges. Reclaimed moments individuals spend engaged in such activity can allow them to reestablish a sense of control in otherwise stressful and constraining contexts. Ability to access such recreation and thus momentarily "escape" can provide a safety valve for those who face unyielding situations or put in long work hours, thus putting the porousness of today's Internet-supported workplaces to good use.

The value of recreation and play in adult realms is not well understood, and the very notion of "play" is problematic. Credible evidence that individuals who engage in online play are more productive or happier than those who do not will probably never be forthcomingjust as research about related workplace issues often tends to be nonconclusive. Play is generally considered as a support for children's intellectual and social development, but its role in adult lives is less clear. Research initiatives on what kinds of recreation and play are most efficacious in different workplace environmentsas well as on individual and group "play styles"could enlighten constructive recreation efforts (although they cannot be expected to provide definitive results). Forms of online play may equip individuals to utilize serious computer simulations more effectively, thus reinforcing skills applicable in many workplace contexts.

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Fostering Social Capital Through Online Recreation

Managers have often used organizationally sanctioned recreation as a perquisite, a bonus for acceptable conduct. It has served as an extension of the workplace, providing new settings for social interaction. One can be cynical about the softball and bowling leagues sponsored by organizationsbut they can help provide a form of social capital, part of the glue that holds the at-work community together [4]. Through the past century, many organizations have sponsored picnics and celebrations with the strategy of increasing workplace cohesion.

As employees (including many white collar as well as knowledge workers) telecommute or put in long and irregular hours, the adhesive that binds organizations has been increasingly conveyed through electronic channels. However, it is unclear what kinds of online activity can foster social capital [6]. Just as human-relations experts struggled early in the 20th century to integrate face-to-face recreation into workplace contexts, organizations should attempt similar feats in online realms, thus making online recreation a shared and open resource rather than a secretive endeavor. Unlike many early human-relations experiments, the recreational activities involved should be developed in a participatory (rather than patriarchal) fashion. Whether organization-approved fantasy football, discussion group and collaborative filtering forums, joke-of-the-day contests, or other recreations are ultimately successful will depend on how they fit into everyday working experiences.

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Creating a Level Playing Field

As workplaces have evolved, so have the issues dividing employers and managers. Conflict has ensued on an assortment of matters relating to the quality of worklife, often leading to bloody confrontations [1]. Today, employees who guess wrong about online recreation standardsor choose to violate themoften pay large penalties, even being demoted or fired. Some managers have devised negative sanctions for these infringements far more severe than those applied to comparable face-to-face interaction. Office workers paging through catalogues in idle minutes rarely face the harsh penalties that those caught shopping online often encounter.

Hard-line positions against forms of online recreation may be required in some instances and directly related to important organizational goals. For example, air traffic controllers should be expected to keep focused on landing real airplanes rather than escape into fantasy games during assigned hours. However, some hard-line restrictions can reflect fear or lack of understanding of online realms. Management may assume online recreation will send employees down a slippery slope to Internet addiction or related concerns. Online recreation in its form and content may seem at odds with the culture of some organizations. The kinds of nonwork activities that are allowed in organizations often mirror managerial culture and values, from softball teams to holiday celebrations. Hard-line restrictions against online recreation and the monitoring of workstations to implement them are of symbolic importance, signaling to organizational participants the "proper" way to view the online workplace and themselves as human beings. Overly restricting online recreation may prevent employees from exploring the Internet's full potential for productive intellectual and social endeavors.

Ambiguities concerning online work and play also add complexities to these issues. It is often difficult to tell which Web sites are related to business needs and which are recreational; many have dual purposes, combining amusement with news and other serious pursuits. Slashdot.org has humorous material as well as valuable technical commentary. Helpful intelligent agents can add levity to everyday tasks. Surfing the Internet for an answer to a question or fiddling with various programs can interfere with productive effort, as individuals dwell on technological nuances. Perfecting an organizational newsletter's format can be so involving that individuals lose a sense of proportion as to its business relevance. Managers and employees need to deal not only with recreational concerns but also with broader issues of how to integrate computing into workplaces in ways that are engaging yet productive.

Workplace realities have changed in a tightening economy. For many employees the social and recreational activities needed for them to function optimally have to be obtained during breaks and unoccupied moments in the workplace rather than after-work initiatives. Many employees (especially in high-tech fields) are simply afraid to take vacations and are on call for long periods. Online recreation is part of some individuals' efforts to make their lengthy and demanding working hours more tolerable. A number of online recreational activities can be conducted while productive activity is going on, in a kind of human multitasking. Individuals can check online sports scores while on hold for a telephone call, which can relieve frustration. However, online recreation should certainly not be exploited as a means to keep individuals glued to workstations for indefinite periods in lieu of reasonable work schedules and demands.


Managers who expect employees not to use the Internet for some amount of off-task activity severely misjudge the nature of workplace lifewhich is solidly infused in online interaction.


Solutions as to how to couple online work and play are emerging in organizations that are tailored to specific workplace contexts. Managers and employees are gaining important experience in resolving these issues as individuals conduct activities away from direct supervision via mobile computing or virtual office configurations. Managers are learning how to perform their functions without direct employee surveillance. Employees are learning higher levels of self-discipline and the skills of balancing online work and playjust as they have learned to balance face-to-face schmoozing with task orientation in the physical world. Thus setting severe restrictions on online recreation can serve to slow down the process of understanding how to migrate the organization into virtual realms and establish trust. Responsibility and respect for others in these realms can be difficult to acquire, and many employees will indeed need direction. Those who stray from "netiquette" standards in online discussions are generally given guidance as to how they have deviated [2]. Similar kinds of community and peer support will help individuals use online recreation constructively in workplace contexts.

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Toward a Work/Play Ethic

The importance of recreation and play is widely recognized for children but is only slowly being understood in adult realms. Author and musician Pat Kane has proposed that a "play ethic" be fostered, one that accommodates the adult requirement for play (www.theplayethic.com). Perhaps, given the theme of this article, a "work/play ethic" is more appropriate, fostering a balance between effort that is immediately productive and other forms of human expression. Unfortunately, consensus about the role of play in workplaces is still rare. As evidenced by the articles in this special section, Internet recreation provides a contested space in many organizational settings. This space is quickly expanding as wireless Internet access becomes ubiquitous.

Allowing for reasonable and humane amounts of online recreation can indeed have considerable advantages, both for the individuals involved and the organization as a whole. It can serve to open blocked creative channels and possibly relieve stress as well. Constructive use of recreation will require a number of changes, such as increases in managerial flexibility and employee empowerment. Organizational participants must learn how to handle the distractions and opportunities of increasingly porous workplaces, with their many external influences. Education and training can be useful in these initiatives: new employees can be aided to combine work and recreation in ways that increase overall effectiveness. Constructive recreation strategies can bring these complex matters into the open, rather than allow them to be objects of rumor and fear.

Forms of online diversion are already becoming integral elements of everyday workplace life. Discourse on constructive recreation can increase mutual trust and respect concerning online as well as face-to-face activity. With effort on everyone's part, constructive use of recreation can help the entire organization work harder and play harder.

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References

1. Edwards, R. Contested Terrain: The Transformation of the Workplace in the Twentieth Century. Heineman, NY, 1978.

2. Oravec, J. Virtual Individuals, Virtual Groups: Human Dimensions of Groupware and Computer Networking. Cambridge University Press, NY, 1996.

3. Oravec, J. Working hard and playing hard: Constructive uses of online recreation. J. Gen. Manag. 24, 3 (Spring 1999), 7789.

4. Putnam, R. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. Simon & Schuster, NY, 2000.

5. Roy, D. "Banana time": Job satisfaction and informal interaction. Hum. Org. 18 (19591960), 158168.

6. Uslaner, E. Social capital and the Net. Commun. ACM 43, 12 (Dec. 2000), 6064.

7. Verton, D. Employers OK with e-surfing. Computerworld 34, 51, (Dec. 18, 2000).

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Author

Jo Ann Oravec (oravecj@mail.uww.edu) is an associate professor in the College of Business and Economics at the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater.


©2002 ACM  0002-0782/02/0100  $5.00

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