Angry Birds and productivity at work: why distractions can help


On Friday a journalist from the Herald Sun called me to ask for my response to an ‘analysis’ suggesting that $1.4 billion of worker productivity is lost to playing Angry Birds. It seems that my answers turned the story around from what could have been yet another populist headline to Is Angry Birds the new Solitaire or are we flying off the handle a bit too early?

I was quoted:

Chairman of Advanced Human Technologies Ross Dawson told today that workers already do a number of things that are not considered productive – like going to the bathroom or talking to colleagues without any actual loss in productivity.

“The fact someone is spending time playing a game or browsing doesn’t mean a productivity loss,” Mr Dawson said. “It’s only an issue if it becomes excessive.

“If we measured the productivity of someone who tried to work 60 minutes an hour versus 55 minutes an hour and spent five minutes playing Angry Birds, I suspect you wouldn’t see less work done by the person playing five minutes an hour.”

A study released last month confirms Mr Dawson’s theory, finding that contrary to popular myth, social networking can actually improve employee performance.

They included a link in the article, but to the wrong study. What I referred to in the interview was a paper called “Impact of Cyberloafing on Psychological Engagement”, referred to in the New York Times among other sources.

The study showed that people who browsed the web in work breaks were more productive than those who continued working or did other things on their break.

I also told the journalist that people who goof off too much at work need management attention and intervention. The fact that playing a little bit during working hours can actually improve productivity is not an excuse to play all day. Sometimes staff need monitoring, other times they can and should be trusted to get their job done, and if they feel appropriate, to have some diversion during the day.

This reminds me of similar media coverage just over 4 years ago, when an internet security made up a number, saying that use of Facebook at work was costing employers $5 billion a year. My response, which fortunately also received some good media coverage, was that spending time on Facebook wasn’t necessarily wasted time, and could actually benefit employers.

That message seems to have taken a while to sink in. While many companies soon reversed their hastily-enforced bans on Facebook back in 2007 and 2008, someone told me that their employer had just a few weeks ago rescinded their ban on Facebook.

However the point about diversions is very important today. The fallacy that humans can be consistently productive at knowledge work for 8 hours is not helpful. Of course that’s not an excuse to play all day, something that I and probably you grapple with all the time. Let’s work on getting better productivity. And maybe one way to do that is to schedule Angry Birds or web browsing breaks every hour.