Workers Are Lazy Ingrates, Say Evil Bosses

dagwoodThis week brings more data fueling the unending, unedifying struggle between office drones and bosses, with surveys suggesting about one third of the average office workday is devoted to surfing the Web -- with a good chunk of that going to social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. But as always, I have to wonder whether all this "wasted time" actually has a negative impact on productivity?

Sure, the figures are big enough to make even a generous, kind-hearted employer nervous: according to AOL and Salary.com, 44.7% of workers said surfing the Web was the biggest distraction in their workplace. The same survey found that, on average, employees waste over two hours a day online; figuring an eight-hour workday, 2.5 hours comes to 31% of the total time spent in the office. This jibes pretty well with another, separate study from IDC which found that "30 percent to 40 percent of Internet use in the workplace is unrelated to business." Averaging all these numbers, I come up with 33.6% of the workday spent online on non-work-related stuff.

This corroborates other evidence suggesting that this, how you say, "goofing off" is indeed widespread. According to the Cisco 2010 Midyear Security Report, which includes the results of a survey of employees from around the world, 50% of the employees surveyed said they ignored corporate policies which ban social media in the workplace, and over one quarter of the employees surveyed said they had changed the security settings on their work computers so they can carry on their social media activities unhindered. Also earlier this year, Clearswift, a software security company, found that 57% of workers ages 25-34 do personal tasks like checking social networks, emailing, and online shopping while in the workplace.

So, yes: people are clearly surfing the Web and using social media at work. A lot. But I am skeptical when kill-joys take the next "logical" step by claiming that all this non-working is hurting corporate bottom lines and even affecting national productivity -- like a bogus report from a U.K. employer network which I delighted in debunking back in August.

As I argued back then, it seems reasonable to assume that it takes different people different amounts of time to do their jobs, meaning some people might be able to handle all their responsibilities with time left over for social media. In that vein, it might be more accurate to ask bosses how often they have to reprimand employees for neglecting their duties because of social media use, or ask corporate IT departments how often they have to block social sites because productivity is slipping. After all, isn't it the prerogative of bosses to set productivity goals, and then make sure that they're being met? If workers are fully as productive as management expects, then what's the issue?

Once you are willing to consider the possibility that social media use (and Web surfing in general) doesn't necessarily hurt productivity, it begins to look more like a quality of life issue in the workplace. In fact, companies which try to crack down on social media use could find themselves struggling to recruit talented young workers. On that note, Clearswift also found that 21% of young adults said they would turn down a job if it didn't allow them to access social network sites or their personal email during work hours.

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5 comments about "Workers Are Lazy Ingrates, Say Evil Bosses".
  1. Kc Compton from Ogden Publications , September 17, 2010 at 1:49 p.m.

    In addition to being a quality-of-work-life issue for the younger employees, it seems to me to be an important area for older managers (me!) to pay attention to as well. If we want to move into the next phase of technology--whatever that might end up being--it pays to have eyes and ears sussing out the brave new world. Yes, if someone isn't getting their job done, that needs to be addressed and corrected, but if they're out cruising around social media, soaking up trends and cultural conversations, and can bring that back to us by way of better use of social media, then I don't consider it a waste of time.

  2. Douglas Ferguson from College of Charleston , September 17, 2010 at 2:13 p.m.

    If someone has "time left over" on a regular basis then it's a clear sign that they either have too little to do, or have mentally redefined their job as doing less than their boss might imagine. As for productive time spent on social media, yes, maybe, but cruising Ebay and Craigslist is goofing off. And that Farmville...don't get me started. Farmville should be blocked at any business.

  3. Mark Disciullo from MISI Company , September 17, 2010 at 2:30 p.m.

    Remember when IM was considered "goofing off?" Now IM is considered an enterprise-wide productivity tool. Soon Social Media sites will be viewed the same. Of course It depends on the person and the organization. I know my "work" social media behavior is much different then my "home" social media behavior. I've even used Social Media to reach out to an audience and get rapid insights for user research I'm doing for work related projects

  4. Sandy Miller from Success Communications , September 17, 2010 at 4:33 p.m.

    the problem is also the blurring between time working and off time by employers. How many employees are working from home, tied to their blackberry or otherwise working over the 9-5 norm. So if that is the case are you goofing off if you check your facebook at 2:00 in the afternoon but then are answering emails at 9:00 at night. The traditional 9-5 40 hour week seems to be vanishing so new rules are going to have be used to compensate.

  5. John Jainschigg from World2Worlds, Inc. , September 17, 2010 at 5:48 p.m.

    I agree with KC Compton ... bosses, and by extension, managers, are responsible for defining projects and goals, setting expectations about individual contributions, and establishing the pace of productivity for their report-tos. They're also globally responsible for nurturing an office culture where merit (not just 'amount' but 'quality' of work) is recognized and rewarded, excessive slacking is eschewed, a sense of willingness to 'do whatever it takes to get the company's work done' is encouraged, along with a constant theme of questioning, optimization, advancement around best-practice, job descriptions, and career-paths.

    _Provided such a culture exists_, nobody has to worry about 'non-work internet use,' any more than they have to worry about (for example) a dad taking off at 4:30 PM to pick up his kids from daycare, or someone deciding that their best, most-motivated time for exercise is from 2-3 PM, and scheduling workouts in that timeslot. Because the work gets done - people know it gets done - they know about each others' contributions - they mutually police where necessary (rarely, because most people are remarkably ethical and have a sense of gratitude towards an organization that lets them be themselves and excel), and everybody is happy.

    Meanwhile, such a humane system can't exist without meeting certain requirements.

    The first requirement is that it take into account the actual way human beings work, which is generally cyclic: periods of high activity alternating with periods of lower activity; periods of high focus alternating with periods of multitasking or distraction; periods of isolation alternating with periods of teaming. Efficient use of time is not about 'squeezing more work into the workday' so much as it is about allocating activity to cycles in order to produce output of all kinds (e.g., paid work, life-chores and errands, professional relationships, personal and family relationships) in best-achieveable volume and quality, without demanding so much, or the wrong stuff from the system, so you end up degrading the organism. "Mental and physical health" and "Happiness" are outputs of the process, along with "reports" and "improved Q2 sales figures."

    If you acknowledge this (and it's reality, so it would be a good idea to acknowledge it), then you need to build business systems and cultures that deal with it gracefully. This is substantially the boss's problem first, before it becomes 'everyone's problem.'

    The other problem -- and a major source of friction in many enterprises -- is over-industrialization and centralization of functions and authority, which almost always ends up making huge chunks of a business 'unserviceable,' creates malign gatekeepers, and reinforces old-fashioned ideas about productivity and duty. Ironically, IT is a major offender here, which is why people like Nicholas Carr at Harvard say they increasingly 'don't matter.' In a connected world, where we all maintain computers, home networks, smart devices, online presences and integrations among them (all of this fairly securely), it seems very backward to encounter (the majority of) formal workplaces where people are still locked to employer-provided hardware and software, trapped inside enterprise networks, and policy-managed at firewalls.