Employers tend to regard Twitter, Facebook, and other online services including e-mail as “temptations” that distract employees from the work they are supposed to do. Many firms have therefore implemented policies prohibiting private e-mail and internet use in the workplace. While such a policy removes a temptation, it also signals distrust and could hurt worker morale.
In a lab experiment, Aarhus University economists Alexander Koch and Julia Nafziger investigate how workers react to such restrictive policies. Specifically, they analyze (i) whether workers tempted to surf the internet still reciprocate generous wages by putting in substantial effort, and (ii) how an active policy of restricting internet use affects workers’ output.
Their findings: Workers provide low effort whenever they perceive their wages as ‘unfair’ – no matter whether they have internet access or not. Yet, workers who receive a ‘fair’ wage provide more effort when the internet is off than when it is on. The authors observe that temptations may even completely crowd out reciprocal motives towards the employer. A restrictive policy therefore provides a commitment device for workers not to get distracted from their job.
Commitment device vs. excessive control
However, restricting internet access may also perceived as excessive control. This is particularly true for highly reciprocal workers, who value “freedom from control” at least as highly as a generous wage. For non-reciprocal workers, the commitment aspect dominates.
The internet policies studied are just one example of ‘soft’ control that firms can impose on their employees. Other common examples are home office strategies that imply some form of working hour monitoring. The results of the lab experiment show that these policies do not come without potential hidden costs that firms should take into account.
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