Walk into any large office, and you will most likely hear the telltale computer bleeps of chat programs and online games, accompanied by furious mouse-clicking. Employees may seem busy, but many are wasting time on the Internet, or "cyberslacking".
Studies worldwide suggest employees spend about a fifth of their work shifts engaging in personal activities. Their favourite time waster? The Internet.
Patricia Wallace, author of the 2004 book "The Internet in the Workplace: How New Technology Is Transforming Work", said employees have always found ways to avoid working too hard.
"The issue is now you have something that seems to be genuinely irresistible because it's such a gateway to the whole planet that's right there on your desk and easily concealed to people passing by," said Wallace, a professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
Employees who cyberslack have been shown to spend most of their time emailing, and almost a third of their messages were not related to work, said James Philips, a psychology professor at Australia's Monash University.
Many workers manage finances or shop online. Popular social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace are also common cyberslacking destinations. It is not uncommon to see a user write on his "status" report that he or she is "at work".
Some companies, which spend millions on Web access, have fired workers for cyberslacking, citing concerns about inappropriate activities. But hiding it has become easier -- people can access the Internet through mobile phones, for instance.
Films and television shows have been focusing on the phenomenon.
Time-wasting at work was spoofed in the 1999 cult film "Office Space," while "The Office", a British TV comedy that now has a U.S. version, has shown characters playing a computer war game as part of what they described as a team-building exercise.
"You eat like a pig!"
Walter Block, a professor of economics at Loyola University in New Orleans, pointed to similarities between employees who slacked off before the computer age and those who waste time in cyberspace.
"I think they do it for the same reason they did it before -- some people, because they're cheating their boss, other people, because it helps them work," Block said.
Office-dedicated Web sites have been popping up.
Workers can go to www.overheardintheoffice.com to post and rate humorous quotes overheard at their workplaces. They can rant about office colleagues and bosses at www.annoyingcoworker.com -- and email them anonymous messages through the Web site.
"UGH! You eat like a pig!" one person wrote. "Stop smacking your lips and licking your fingers and snorting while you eat chips two feet away from me! It's like feeding time at the zoo!"
A recent survey by online compensation firm Salary.com showed about six out of 10 employees in the United States acknowledged wasting time at work.
About 34 percent listed personal Internet use as the leading time-wasting activity in the workplace. Employees said they did so because they were bored, worked too many hours, were underpaid or were unchallenged at work.
Firms all over the world are concerned about potentially harmful effects of surfing they deem to be inappropriate may have on their company's image. Many firms use computer software to monitor Web activity and block certain sites or servers.
Almost a fifth of those surveyed in a 2006 Israeli-American poll said they accessed online sex sites at work.
U.S.-based electronics firm IBM once fired an employee for visiting an adult chat room at work. Last year, a New York City employee was sacked by Mayor Michael Bloomberg for having a card game on his computer screen.
Some experts say private Internet use at work does not affect productivity and could even be beneficial.
"The so-called cyberslacking could be online shopping or arranging for your dog-sitter online or taking care of banking so you don't have to take a two-hour lunch," Wallace said. "In cases like that, you're actually helping employees save time".