“Surfin’ USA” – Accessing the Net at Work and Other Time-Wasting Activities – Are They a Cost or Benefit to Your Agency?

Do you have cyberloafers and cyberslackers in your workplace? Most organizations have some but it is probably a small percentage of the workforce. Some supervisors devise a solution that penalizes the whole group and not just the major offenders. Here is a summary of the most common time wasting activities and suggestions for dealing with the problem.

When I started researching an article on personal use of the Internet at work and restrictions imposed by Federal agencies. It quickly became clear that this issue doesn’t just apply to the Federal sector — employees throughout the economy use the Internet for non-work-related purposes — and that surfing the Net is only one of many ways in which employees can waste time at work (blinding flash of insight, eh?). I decided to broaden the scope of the article and to provide two conflicting perspectives: 1) that time wasted costs employers billions of dollars; and 2) that occasional diversions from the work are necessary to refresh workers and to stimulate their creativity, thus actually boosting the employer’s "bottom line."

According to a recently released online survey administered in 2006 by Salary.com and America Online (AOL), the respondents – more than 10,000 American workers — admitted to wasting, on average, more than 2.09 hours per day. I must admit that number caught me a bit by surprise. Like many of my colleagues who were drawn to the Federal Service, at least in part, by President John F. Kennedy’s clarion call, "Ask what you can do for your country," I was always extremely conscientious about providing a full day of work for a full day’s pay. I could probably count without taking off my shoes the number of breaks I took in the average year, and I would typically eat lunch in my office, spending just enough time there to slam down a sandwich and read the sports section.

I may be looking at the past through rose-colored glasses and an ever-dimmer memory, but the survey did find that that while there was no statistically meaningful distinction between men and women with regard to the amount of time wasted, there was a significant difference between age groups. Those born from1930-1949 wasted only .5 hours per day and those who came into the world from 1950-1969 were just a tad more wasteful at .68 hours per day. The top time-wasters in the survey were those born from 1980 – 1985. As an old guy, I must confess to getting a certain amount of satisfaction from these statistics.

In an article titled "Wasted Time at Work Costing Companies Billions," author Dan Malachowski of Salary.com listed the top-10 time-wasting activities, as follows:

Top Ten Time Wasting Activities
Surfing Internet 44.7%
Socializing with co-workers 23.4%
Conducting Personal Business 6.8%
Spacing Out 3.9%
Running Errands off-premises 3.1%
Personal phone calls 2.3%
Applying for other jobs 1.3%
Planning personal events 1.0%
Arriving late/leaving early 1.0%
Other 12.5%

Clearly, the two dominant time-wasting activities are surfing the Internet and socializing with co-workers. Accordingly, those two activities will be the focus of this article, and I will be paying particular attention to the time spent accessing the Web.

The majority view among the many articles I have read on the subject is that much, if not all, of the time doing personal business on the Internet at work costs the agency/employer productivity and should be controlled, perhaps even monitored.

An articulate proponent of that view is Samuel Greengard, whose article, "The High Cost of Cyberslacking – employees waste time online" appeared in Workforce Management in December of 2000.

"Despite the enormous payoff from e-business and online access to information, the Internet has quietly emerged as a playground for workers, who increasingly trade stocks, download music, gamble, play games, buy books, read sports news, send e-cards, and frequent online red-light districts — all during working hours. Others tap out jokes or send chain letters across the enterprise and beyond, devouring bandwidth and brainwidth…

While most workers keep their extracurricular activities to a minimum — and some organizations prefer to leave the wild frontier of the Internet unregulated — cyberloafers and cyberslackers are becoming a big enough problem in the corporate world that many companies are beginning to crack down. In some cases, they’re putting sophisticated monitoring systems in place. In other instances, they’re suspending and firing workers for Internet abuse. Not surprisingly, almost everyone is grappling with developing a policy to deal with the problem.

Some organizations have found that, left unchecked, the issue can explode in their faces. For example, two industry giants, Chevron and Microsoft, found themselves settling sexual-harassment lawsuits for $2.2 million apiece as a result of internally circulated e-mails that, according to the law, might have created hostile work environments. In fact, many companies, as a direct response to these kinds of problems, have turned to sophisticated Web-monitoring software…"

An entirely different perspective was presented with equal vigor by David H. Freedman in an article titled "Worried that employees are wasting time on the Web? Here’s why you shouldn’t crack down." (Inc.com, August 2006)

    "Now we’ve got an ocean of information — the Internet — and what do you know, a lot of people like to spend lots of time trolling through it. But that doesn’t make them unproductive.

    For one thing, the line between at-work and off-work is growing increasingly blurry. Thanks to cell phones, BlackBerrys, and ubiquitous high-speed Internet access, many employees are as productive at home as they are when they’re behind their desks.

    In fact, such off-hours activity more than makes up for productivity that is ‘lost’ to leisurely Web surfing between 9 and 5, says Robert Cenek, a human resources expert who publishes the Cenek Report, an online journal. ‘Employees tend to spend more time doing work-related Internet tasks at home than nonwork-related Internet tasks at the office,’ he says.

Indeed, employees spend an average of 3.7 hours a week on the Web for personal activities at work and 5.9 hours a week online at home doing work-related tasks, according to a study by the University of Maryland’s Smith School of Business and Rockbridge Associates, a market research firm based in Great Falls, Virginia.

    "It’s not realistic to think you can control everything employees do online, and it feels punitive to watch over them….’ "

Similar sentiments were expressed by Jeanne Sahadi, CNN/Money senior writer, in a July 11, 2005, article titled "Power slacking on the job." Ms. Sahadi quoted Bill Coleman, senior vice president of Salary.com, as saying some employers view (surfing the Net and socializing) as "creative waste" that benefits the company’s culture, work environment and even improves the bottom line.

    "Here’s the logic: Trolling the Internet or having casual office conversations can turn into new business ideas, ways to improve efficiency or just strengthen the bond between workers.

    It also can bolster the reputation of a company as worker-friendly, especially if managers don’t mind when an employee takes more downtime than usual after, say, cramming to finish a project, or has family concerns that need to be addressed during the day.

    Of course, there’s a difference between employees who are truly slackers and those who slack off occasionally to recharge their batteries or attend to personal business. If nothing else, managers often can tell from the quality of someone’s work the amount of effort put in. Said Coleman: ‘Good managers know the work ethic of each of their employees and know who’s a producer and who’s a slacker.’"

Christina Galoozis, in "Wasting Time at Work Costs Companies Billions," published July 22, 2005, by Inc.com, also quoted Bill Coleman.

    "There are a number of employees who will work 50 or 60 hours a week. Are you really going to argue with them about wasting an hour or so on the Internet?"

After reading many articles on this subject, I think both sides of the time-wasting argument have some validity. The Internet is clearly both an essential tool for most employees and a potential distraction from work.

It is likely that some employees – Samuel Greengard calls them "cyberloafers and cyberslackers" — will try to take advantage of any policy or practice management has in place. Fortunately, that is typically a very small percentage of the workforce.

On the other side of the coin, I find the argument that many employees are working more hours than ever to be compelling. The tools that were mentioned in the articles cited above, such as cell phones, BlackBerrys and the Internet, have made it possible for employees to almost literally work 24/7, and some supervisors take advantage of that fact. When I conduct training, I consistently see class participants using all of those tools, and others, before and after class and during breaks and lunch. Lots of employees and supervisors I talk to feel that they are expected to check and respond to e-mail and voice mail when they are on travel and even when they are out sick.

As I see it, striking a proper balance between the two opposing arguments on time-wasting would be a reasonable supervisory objective. One proactive approach might be to get a copy of the Salary.com/AOL survey of time-wasters and discuss it at a staff meeting. If yours is one of the many Federal agencies that already have policies in place with regard to non-work-related use of personal computers and the Internet at the office, before, during and after work, you should make sure that all employees are familiar with — and understand — the policy. If the agency doesn’t have such a policy, you should convey your own rules and make it clear that you welcome questions.

And if you encourage employees to share (among themselves and with you) relevant information they find on the Internet, and express appreciation when they do, you may find that your operation benefits directly or indirectly from some of their Net surfing.

As a former Federal supervisor, I think it’s okay to let employees know that you don’t expect them to spend every minute of the workday working, and that a bit of socializing is not only normal but can help build the kind of teamwork necessary to accomplish the mission. You can also remind employees that socializing can be carried to excess, and that you will be counting on their usual good judgment in keeping it to a reasonable level. I think it is also helpful from a morale standpoint to let employees know that if you are concerned with anyone’s use of time, you will deal with that person directly, not take it out on the whole group.

One good way to prevent problems with time-wasting, and to correct them if necessary, is to get out among your employees on a regular basis. If you do find a problem, often a counseling session or two will correct the behavior; at a minimum, it will let the employee know that you’re paying attention. If the misconduct continues, I’d suggest you contact Human Resources (HR) for advice and keep your own supervisor informed.

As is so often the case with workplace issues, I think the key to dealing effectively with this one is common sense: Make sure employees know the rules; enforce those rules consistently; and trust employees to do the right thing. By recognizing the reality of such "distractions" as Net surfing and socializing, and by allowing employees to spend a reasonable amount of time engaging in them, it is likely that you will enhance morale, and I believe there is a direct relationship between morale and productivity.

About the Author

Steve Oppermann completed his Federal career on March 31, 1997, after more than 26 years of service, virtually all in human resources management. He served as Regional Director of Personnel for GSA and advised and represented management in six agencies during his federal career. Steve passed away after a battle with cancer on December 22, 2013.