he big question from office workers too young to have known a world without personal computers and the Internet is: "How could you be productive without modern technology?" However, a more interesting question is: "How did you waste time before modern technology?" Frankly, it was hard. An office with nothing but an IBM Selectric typewriter and a telephone doesn't leave many options except work. The Internet has made us a whole lot more productive. And a whole lot less.
Yes, workers have always wasted time: In pre-computer days, I knew someone who had a telephone account with OTB, New York's legal horse-betting outfit. His employer, trying to encourage him to spend more time working and less time placing bets, blocked the phone number. However, they only thought to block the local number. He continued to place bets by calling an upstate outlet, so not only did he continue to waste time, he also wasted money on long-distance calls. The Internet has multiplied these opportunities a thousand-fold.
In 2005, America Online and Salary.com surveyed 10,000 people about time wasted at work. Personal-use Web surfing topped the list at 44.7 percent. Younger workers--presumably those who were more adept at finding time-wasting Internet activities--wasted more time than older ones. A follow-up survey in 2006 found that workers were wasting less time overall, but personal Internet use actually went up--to 52 percent.
Companies have fought back by restricting Internet use, but it's hard to draw a line between what is necessary for work and what is personal. (Consider the sites I visited for this article.) At one company I worked for, a human resources assistant came around to delete the free games that came bundled with Windows. However, knowing little about computers, he only removed the desktop shortcuts; the games themselves were still there. Like my gambler friend, we all easily found a new way to access them.
The government, for one, is not amused. In 2006, the Department of the Interior issued a 3,000-word report on Internet use among its employees. With fanatical accuracy, it calculated that employees accessing auction and game sites potentially cost the taxpayers $2,027,887.68 per year. An audit of the DOI computers revealed that one computer had 2,369 computer log entries at two Internet game sites for about 14 hours. Interestingly, a September 2006 memo from the DOI inspector general did not ban game playing outright, noting that "employees may make limited personal use of government equipment as long as it occurs on non-duty time...and the expense to the government is negligible."
Indeed, some "wasted" time may not be a bad thing. After issuing the 2005 survey results, Salary.com's Senior Vice President Bill Coleman said that a certain amount of wasted time was "'creative waste,' wasted time that may well have a positive impact on the company's culture, work environment, and even business results."
Some experts believe game playing can actually be good for you. James Paul Gee, professor of reading at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an authority on linguistics, published a book in 2003 called What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy. In a 2005 article in the Harvard Education Letter, he wondered why children have the patience to play with complex and challenging video games for hours, while they seemingly are incapable of sitting still for five minutes of trigonometry. He believes that well-designed computer games can teach valuable problem-solving skills, and that our educational system could learn something from game designers.
Of course, a defense of time-wasting Internet surfing and game playing based on academic research might be hard to get by most HR departments. It's better to stick to common-sense rules for corporate use. Sweeping and rigid policies will end up being ignored, but there are some easy-to-follow guidelines everyone can agree are sensible. For example:
o No adult-only sites. Ever. Not only do these open companies up to harassment charges, these sites often contain viruses.
o To reduce overwhelming the email system, no forwarding of jokes to the entire company and no attachments larger than 500 KB, unless there is a business need for it.
o It's one thing to play a little solitaire at lunchtime. It's another thing to load a multi-megabtye game that takes up half the hard disk.
And workers should note that it can be very easy for an employer to keep track of programs used and sites visited. It's wise to assume your boss is always over your shoulder. Every Web site visited leaves a long-term trace on the computer that is nearly impossible to erase. This is especially important to know at offices where several employees share a laptop for travel. I don't have any special computer skills, but at a company I worked at several years ago, it was easy for me to discover a colleague spent a good portion of her last business trip visiting online dating sites.As a final perspective on tech-aided time wasting, advisors might want to consider whether goofing off is the next growth industry. In "Too Much Money" (January 2007) we noted that You Tube was sold for $1.65 billion. And for all the talk about new models of publishing and Web 2.0, what is that site after all except time-wasting turned, quite literally, into an art form.
Richard J. Koreto (email@example.com) is editor-in-chief of Wealth Manager.