Why Most Americans Value the Internet and Email at Work

Source: Thinkstock

Source: Thinkstock

A recent report by the Pew Research Internet Project found that most American workers say that the Internet makes them to be more productive. Pew surveyed a representative sample of 535 adult Internet users who had full-time or part-time jobs. Pew’s most recent relevant data, collected in 2013, showed that 94% of jobholders are Internet users.

The 535 adults in the study were drawn from a sample of 1,066 Internet users. Among that sample, 53% reported being employed full-time or part-time, and demographically these adults skew slightly male and are more likely to be in the 30 to 59 age range when compared with adults who are not working. Twenty-nine percent of respondents reported working in professional roles such as lawyer, doctor, teacher, nurse, or accountant, while 14% were in managerial or executive roles, 13% were in service jobs, and 14% were in clerical positions. Seven percent were in skilled occupations, 5% in semi-skilled occupations, and 15% categorized their occupation as “other.”

Among those surveyed, email and the Internet top the list of tools that workers consider the most important to doing their jobs — 61% of workers said that email is “very important” to their jobs, while 54% said the same about “the Internet.” Far fewer felt the same way about other tools and platforms. Only 35% said that a landline phone was very important to their jobs, and while cell phones and smartphones followed not too far behind at 24%, social networking sites including Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn were “very important” to just 4% of respondents.

The New York Times, reporting on Pew’s research, notes that that mismatch between the perceived value of email and social media in the workplace has prompted Facebook to test a work-centric version of its social network intended specifically for use in the workplace. Lee Rainie, director of Internet, science, and technology research at the Pew Research Center and one of the authors of the report, told The New York Times, “Email has proven its worth on the job as the foundational ‘social media’ day by day even as rival technologies arise.”

Americans value email and the Internet as communication and information tools at work

Pew’s report, authored by Kristen Purcell and Rainie, notes that despite email’s early challenges — including threats like spam and phishing or competition from social media and texting — email is a tool of high value for the American worker. Both email and the Internet are important to “white collar” workers in office-based occupations, such as executives, managers, business owners, and other professionals. They are also critical tools for the 59% of online, employed adults who occasionally take their work outside the physical bounds of the workplace.

The report notes that despite warnings about lost productivity and email overuse, email hasn’t loosened its grip over the American workplace. The report explains, “This high standing for email has not changed since Pew Research began studying technology in the workplace. Email’s vital role has withstood major changes in other communications channels such as social media, texting, and video chatting.” Surprisingly, given the penetration rate of smartphones in the U.S., workers are less likely to rate mobile phones as “very important” to their jobs than they are to say the same of landline phones.

While commentators and industry watchers worry that digital tools and platforms can be a distraction for workers, just 7% of working adults report that their productivity has dropped because of the internet, email, and cell phones. Conversely, 46% feel that these tools have made them more productive.

Half of Internet-using workers say that these technologies expand the number of people with whom they communicate outside of their organization, and 39% say that email, the Internet, and cell phones afford them more flexibility in the hours that they work. And a full 35% of workers say that these tools serve to increase the number of hours that they work. (Each of these effects, the report explains, are felt more among office-based workers than among blue-collar, non-office-based employees.)

For those who work remotely, access to the Internet and cell phones is critical

It comes as no surprise that these tools are rated as very important for those who work away from their office. Pew reports that among the full-time and part-time workers surveyed, 21% work outside of their workplace every day or almost every day. Another 13% work outside of the office a few times each week, but 41% of workers say that they never work outside of their workplace.

Among the 59% of employed Internet users who work outside of the workplace at least occasionally, half say the internet and cell phones are “very important” to allowing them to do their job remotely, and another 24% say these tools are “somewhat important.” Just 11% say the Internet and cell phones are not important at all in allowing them to work remotely.

Adults in what are traditionally office-based professions rely much more heavily on the Internet and cell phones when working remotely than those in traditionally non-office-based professions. A full two-thirds of remote workers in office-based occupations say that the Internet and cell phones are “very important” in enabling them to work remotely, compared with just 26% of remote workers in non-office-based occupations.

Whether users can reach optimum productivity while working remotely is still a topic of contention, with Quartz reporting that in a recent conversation on Y Combinator’s Hacker News, forum users debated whether people who do collaborative work — like engineers — are better off working from the same, physical workspace despite the interruptions of life in a typical office.

While some argued that remote workers can use tools like Skype, Slack, and Google hangouts to collaborate remotely, others said that many engineers value their individual productivity over teamwork — and that organizations that want to optimize their output as a team can’t facilitate the same level of spontaneous collaboration that often takes in person via digital tools.

However, some workers report that the Internet doesn’t make them more productive

Ninety-two percent of working adults say that the Internet hasn’t hurt their productivity at work — including 46% who report that the Internet has made them more productive, and 46% who say the Internet has had no impact on their productivity. Fewer than one in 10 working adults say that the Internet has made them less productive at work — but some do feel that increased access has negatively impacted how much they get done at work. The survey does not report details on whether that perceived loss of productivity stems from problems like the overuse of email or the need to learn and use new tools, or simply from the generally distracting nature of the open Internet.

Adults working in what are traditionally office-based occupations are twice as likely as those in other professions to report that the Internet has increased their productivity. But office-based workers are also more likely to say that the Internet has decreased their productivity. The vast majority of workers in non-office-based jobs say that the Internet has had no effect on their productivity.

Many respondents reported though that their employers had measures in place that would prevent wider access to the Internet from impacting productivity — 46% of online working adults say that their employer blocks certain websites and has rules about what employees can post online. Those rules often include stipulations about what users can post on blogs and websites or about the information that employees can share about themselves online.

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