Why corporate IT should unchain our office computers.

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
Aug. 25 2009 6:40 PM

Unchain the Office Computers!

Why corporate IT should let us browse any way we want.

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You might argue that firms need to make sure that people stay on task—if employees were allowed to do whatever they wanted at work, nobody would get anything done. But in many instances, that claim is ridiculous. My fiancée works at a hospital that blocks all instant-messaging programs. Now, she and her co-workers are doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals—they've been through years of training in which they've proved that they can stay on task even despite the allure of online chat. Can anyone seriously argue that the hospital would suddenly grind to a halt if they were allowed to use IM at work?

Indeed, there's no empirical evidence that unfettered access to the Internet turns people into slackers at work. The research shows just the opposite. Brent Corker, a professor of marketing at the University of Melbourne, recently tested how two sets of workers—one group that was blocked from using the Web and another that had free access—perform various tasks. Corker found that those who could use the Web were 9 percent more productive than those who couldn't. Why? Because we aren't robots; people with Web access took short breaks to look online while doing their work, and the distractions kept them sharper than the folks who had no choice but to keep on task.

Corker's finding fits in with a long line of research that shows distractions can sometimes be good for the mind. Doodling, for instance, helps us stay more alert at meetings. Indeed, Daniel Pink, the author of the upcoming Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, has pointed out that some of the world's most innovative companies are also the most relaxed about goof-off workers. At Google—which, like most big tech firms, imposes no restrictions on workers' computers—people are encouragedto spend time doing stuff that is unrelated to their jobs. Everyone at Pixar is allowed to spend many hours every week attending classes on filmmaking, painting, drawing, creative writing, and other subjects. And Netflix has no vacation plan—people can take as much time off as they like as long as their work gets done.

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There is a jargony HR phrase that describes these forward-looking firms: They're called "results-only workplace environments," where people are judged on what they produce, not how. As Netflix CEO Reed Hastings once told a reporter, "I want managers to come to me and say, 'Let's give a really big raise to Sally because she's getting a lot done'—not because she's chained to her desk." This jibes with Pink's argument that it's a sense of autonomy—rather than money—that drive employees to work hard. People work best, he argues, when they feel they're being left alone to do their jobs. But it's hard to feel that way if your computer is constantly throwing up roadblocks in your path.

OK, but shouldn't firms at least do something about viruses and porn? Sure. Rather than restrict access for everyone—ensuring that nobody ever learns which programs are genuinely bad news and which are blocked just for convenience's sake—they can educate workers about how to use their computers. IT departments could also block the most-obviously ruinous sites, places that traffic in illegal material, like the Pirate Bay, or that have been flagged as repositories of dangerous software. But doing any more than that is counterproductive. As one locked-down worker told me, blocking parts of the Web "systematically makes the company stupider" about the innovation now flooding into our lives. Systematic stupidity is rarely a plan for success.

Killer Apps: Farhad Manjoo reviews Ninja Words, the best dictionary for iPhone.

Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.

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