Shopping online at work? Feel free to blame your boss

Do online shop staff do online shopping while at work in their online shopping warehouse? Jakub Kaczmarczyk/EPA

On Friday we witnessed images reminiscent of the London Riots from a few years ago. People with a crazed look in their eyes descended on shopping malls to plunder their contents. They fought with others over flat screen TVs and emerged, arms full of consumer goods they did not even know they needed. This time, at least, it was legal.

As sure as Boxing Day follows Christmas, so Cyber Monday now follows Black Friday. It presents an altogether different scene. Instead of people brawling over electrical equipment, hundreds of thousands of people around the country sit quietly in their office. Instead of spending their day working, they will spend a good chunk of it chasing bargains on various internet sites.

This is a bonanza for retailers, but in many ways it amounts to a mass withdrawal of productive labour. In the past, this might have been called a general strike. Now it seems we are all willing to collectively row back on working for a day in order to start shopping online.

Clocking off

It is a relatively recent phenomenon. The term was first coined in the US about 2005 and popularised in the UK around 2009. Alongside its “real world” twin, Cyber Monday marks the beginning of the Christmas sales period; according to one marketing services company, UK consumers will spend £649.5m on Dec 1 this year, a 26% increase on Cyber Monday the previous year. In the US, the spend was US$1,735m which was an 18% increase on the previous year.

While Cyber Monday is a big day on for internet retailers, it seems to be a big day off for many of the work force. Instead of officially taking a holiday, many employees show up to work, informally clock off, and then spend a few hours hunting for bargains online. What this means is that a significant amount of the shopping done on this big shopping day is done on company time. Following Sunday evenings, 4pm during weekdays is typically the busiest times for internet shopping.

One US survey found that 49% of employees planned to spend some of their work time during the Christmas holiday period shopping online. Another UK survey found that 53% of employees will do some of their Christmas shopping online while at work.

One loaf short …

It might seem productive, at least to those with lengthy Christmas lists to tick off, but internet shopping is a quintessential form of what has become known as “cyber loafing”. This involves the use of working time to engage in unproductive surfing of the internet – usually for personal purposes. Cyber loafing can come in many forms, from briefly checking in to a social network which might take up a few minutes to extended online shopping sprees or hardcore internet surfing sessions which can wile away whole workdays.

The prevalence of cyber loafing naturally leads us to ask why employees do it. The existing research suggests that employees who are not particularly interested in their job (lower intrinsic motivation and less involved) were more likely to cyber loaf. The cultural norms of the workplace seemed to also make a difference. In workplaces where cyber loafing was informally accepted, people were more likely engage in minor acts of cyber loafing such as checking emails, but they tended to avoid major bouts. When people perceive their workplace to be unjust, they were also more likely to engage in cyber loafing. One study found that the most keen cyber loafers are young, male, from ethnic minorities and more frequent internet users.

Feet up. Productivity flat. Bryan, CC BY

A recent, fascinating study by Roland Paulsen suggests that some people engage in cyber loafing because they simply don’t have enough tasks to do at work. This might seem like a good deal, but not having enough to do can actually be very boring. As a result, many of the people interviewed applied their languishing work ethic to online activities such as reading the newspaper, playing video games and high involvement shopping. By filling up their days with high involvement cyber-loafing, Paulsen found that these bored workers could give some meaning to the endless stretch of time which lay before them.

Performance neutral

Cyber loafing is often seen as a waste of time and energy. However, a recent study suggests that moderate levels don’t have much impact on performance in work tasks. Actually, it appears that a little cyber loafing can actually have an upside. One study reports that some forms can actually trigger more positive moods in people. The lesson, though, is to keep it impersonal: checking emails often made people less happy.

What all this suggests is that the many millions of hours which will be “wasted” at work by employees shopping this Christmas season may not be an entirely bad thing. It certainly fuels the consumer economy. But perhaps more importantly, it means that if you’re not particularly motivated by your job, then you can fairly easily lift your mood; and wave some research about negligible productivity losses under the boss’s nose if you get caught.

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