One of the foundational assumptions about work productivity is that focusing on the work at hand — and resisting any and all distractions — is the best way to get things done and be effective. Like many other absolutist and ungrounded prejudices about how the human mind actually works, this notion has been pretty well disproven in some recent studies.
In particular, various researchers have investigated the effect of wandering around on the internet as a break from other work, as in the case of University of Melbourne’s Brent Coker. He found that workers that ‘surf’ the web while at work — so long as it remains under 20% of the total time in the office — are 9% more productive.
His hypothesis — offered in “Workplace Internet Leisure Browsing”, Human Performance — is that people need to divert their attention from their work in order to recharge and regain lagging attention. This has been corroborated by others, like Angela Lebbon and Dene Hurley in “The effects of workplace leisure behavior on work-related behavior”, Journal of Behavioral Studies in Business. These researchers also found that obsessive surveillance by direct managers can actually increase surfing beyond the productive level, and therefore is counterproductive.
So, it is reasonable and sensible for people to wander the web, just as a way to refresh by thinking about other things, and perhaps with different parts of our brains. In that way, it is something like napping, another human norm that businesses really haven’t figured out how to integrate into the workplace.