How much personal business at work is reasonable?

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The other day I came across an article that said the average US worker spends approximately two hours each day taking care of personal matters, such phone calls, e-mail, personal shopping, and the like.

If these are eight-hour workdays, that's a substantial chunk of time, and an equally large cost to employers. In fact, the article stated that employers are shelling out $700,000,000,000 annually to pay for this "personal time."

I know a lot has already been written on this subject, but it remains a problem, so it's not out of line to suggest it deserves continued attention. After all, 25 percent of a workday is a significant amount of time. It first begs the question "why is so much personal business being done at work?"

Perhaps one part of the answer is "because people can get away with it." An Associated Press article last year reported that the town of Islip, New York saved nearly 14,000 gallons of gasoline over a three-month period after they installed GPS devices on their city vehicles. That's' a lot of gasoline, and again, a substantial cost to the employer. Based on typical mileage for city driving, that equates to about 70,000 miles and over $12,000 each month. Ouch!

Another part of the answer is probably "because it's reasonable." In yet another AP story, a civil servant (also in New York) was let go for spending too much time surfing the Internet at work. A judge ultimately ruled that the worker had to be reinstated, stating that the Internet is now as commonplace as telephones and newspapers.

The judge stated that, "city agencies permit workers to use a telephone for personal calls, so long as this does not interfere with their overall work performance," and, "the Internet has become the modern equivalent of a telephone." "Back in the day" (which is a parallel phrase to "when I was a kid," that horrid expression that precedes a lecture), personal phone calls were totally forbidden at work, except in cases of emergency. Telephones were commonplace (I'm not THAT old), so it's not like people couldn't communicate. What's changed?

The reality is that times are changing, and so are people's attitudes of what is considered normal. Today's technology enables communications and commerce to occur in ways that were unheard of even twenty years ago. A majority of baby boomers are keeping up, but "keeping up" is not a problem for Generation Y workers – especially those currently under the age of 25. To them, these technologies are commonplace and natural. And in their eyes, too much restriction on "quick and easy" personal communication is akin to depriving them of food and water.

Let's think about what that judge said. Yes, the Internet is commonplace these days. In fact, some newspapers and magazines are no longer printing paper versions. After 100 years of continuous publication, the Christian Science Monitor has dropped its paper version in favor on a 100 percent online version. Even giants like the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times are moving in the direction of an online business model.

And beyond basic news, the Internet invites personal time spent chatting and even online dating. Perhaps the next question ought to be "what's reasonable?" What used to be "just a few minutes" running personal errands has expanded into reading blog posts, newspapers, and magazine articles, plus researching new gadgets, scouring e-Bay, scanning personals, and chatting with friends.

In many jobs, restricting this behavior 100 percent would be seen as a Gestapo tactic, which would lead many Gen Y workers to seek employment elsewhere. Still, an average of two hours a day – a quarter of an eight-hour workday - seems a bit excessive.

Yet if employers want to keep these highly talented people around, a blend of personal time and work time is practically essential. Again, the question becomes "how much is reasonable?"

Naturally, what is reasonable will vary from job to job, so no one rule can apply across the board. Therefore, my advice in this matter is this: Employers, have conversations with your employees about this subject. In their hearts, most people know what is reasonable and what is not. By involving them in the decisions of what's reasonable and what the consequences ought to be for overstepping the agreed decisions, you're likely to get a lot more cooperation.

What's more, you can't just have this conversation once and say it's a done deal. People will waiver every day. Regular, ongoing dialog will keep the matter in the front of people's minds, and then they are more likely to be self-policing.

Yes, you might have to hold the line and discipline some people. But the bottom line is that people are being paid to work, not handle their personal affairs. And although times are changing, personal work, on work time, should be kept to an absolute minimum.

Copyright © Dan Bobinski, used with permission
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OLDER COMMENTS

while we work on importing them to the new system!

Does this statistic take account of the fact that before the internet, and other inconspicuous ways to stay in contact with your real friends when sitting alongside your colleagues like SMS, people would have spent a lot more time by the coffee machine, near the water cooler, having a chat with colleagues in the cafeteria... really the additional burden of personal time on the employer is the two hours this survey identifies *minus* the time that would have historically been spent on social and non-work activity in the workplace.

Things certainly did used to be more locked down, but I would hazard a guess that people did spend at least 30-45 minutes each day having these "work socials", so the cost of the internet is now only 1.25 hours. Add in that an office work day used to be a far more civilized 9 - 5 (seven hours) allowing people to do those personal activities that need to be done whereas now it can be eight or nine or ten, and you can quickly see why the norm has changed. Employer's expectations of employee flexibility are very different; the employee has finally found a technology that allows them to redress the balance.

Victoria UK

Is the opposite true, then? Work business at home should be kept to a minimum?

I trust my team to be professional until they prove otherwise. If they are answering work emails and debugging customer issues on their time, who am I to complain when they're ordering movie tickets and managing their 401K on "my" time?

The boundaries have blurred quite a bit, especially for knowledge workers. A high profile blogger who is identified in the industry with your company may spend some time at work spreading his personal brand. He benefits from this, but so does your company. How do you decide whether that's reasonable or not?

Simple answer. If your team is executing well, trust their judgment.

David

David / Victoria,

Truth is that I'm a strong advocate of Results Only Work Environments. However, that approach entails a SOLID communication and trust factor in both directions. For environments in which ROWE is possible, I strongly advocate it.

That said, some businesses will not or cannot take that route. ROWE is a huge shift in viewing how work gets done in a business. Some managers and/or leaders simply won't let go nor assume the appropriate responsibilities to take the risk.

But when it comes to hourly work, I like to use the analogy of hiring a plumber to fix something at my house. If he's there for four hours and bills me for four hours, I expect him to have worked on my plumbing for four hours. I don't want to pay for four hours of his time if he spent three hours on my home and one hour on the phone coaching a co-workers through a job in a different location. And it wouldn't have to be one continuous hour --- if he made four fifteen-minute phone calls during his four hours at my house (or even ten six-minute calls), I want my bill to reflect three hours of actual work, not four.

In the same way, if I have a full-time employee who spends one hour each day surfing the net but then can't finish his or her assignments, I've got a problem with that. Especially if the person wants overtime pay to stay later, or won't stay late at all to get the job done.

Jobs vary greatly ... so much of this conversation is circumstantial. My employees don't see me as a grinch. I advocate water cooler conversations and social interaction among employees -- such activity has great value. But if someone is spending 25 percent of his/her time on personal matters and getting wages for that time while the employer's work is not getting done, then something needs to change. Bring on a ROWE system, or, like I pointed out in the column, at least have a 'come-to-Jesus' meeting and mutually agree on what's acceptable.

Dan B.

I agree with David about trusting your team to be professional. We have to remember that these are not just worker, but adults and if they are at your office from 9-5, or whenever; they have things that they may need to handle as well. There has been many times before I became a manager that I nearly had to jump up and down on my managers desk to get their attention away from some personal venture that they was into, but the work was always done at the end of the day. Bottom line, I believe that if the work is getting done give the employees some slack especially if they are a good employee. It would probably cost more to hire and train a replacement versus them surfing the net during down time.

Sheldon

I don't know much about the "average" office work day being 10-11 hours, but what does strike me about Victoria’s reply is her attitude that using technology/ taking personal time during employer scheduled hours is an appropriate response to "redress" what she apparently believes to be an intolerable situation. Isn’t this passive aggressive??? Maybe even dishonest??? Perhaps it’s poor ethics??? Pick your term.

If the discrepancy between employee/employer expectations has become so vast per Victoria’s description that the work situation has become intolerable, then that is a topic for a direct solution- focused conversation between employees and their bosses. Passive-aggressive behavior does nothing to engender a trustful relationship going either direction in the employer/employee relationship.

Lorena R. USA

I'm visting the Management Issues website, though not a manager, and definitely not advancing my project. I've seen the posts about Toads, read some advice about office politics. It would be easy to say that I'm loafing, wasting my employer's time. And maybe I am. Today, I'm confused about how to proceed. I have both technical problems and people problems and feel very alone.

I've asked the boss for assistance but we're understaffed and all she'll offer is I can "borrow" someone for a few hours which isn't the type of help I need. So while my sub-concious sorts out how to proceed, I'm wasting time looking at management opinions and now writing my own opinion piece.

Over the years, I've noticed the central locations where people would gather to socialize have been eliminated. Sure we told a lot of jokes around the coffee pot but we also talked about our projects, the things that were tripping us up and our personal victories. There was a friendly rivalry around our war stories and solutions and an opportunity to reshape and resize our problems and shortcomings. Now we don't have a coffee pot because it's too messy, disruptive, and a fire hazzard. And, of course, we were wasting time. So now there's no neutral, central meeting place.

Instead everybody hides in their cubicles. I don't know what the person next door is doing or capable of doing. She doesn't know about me either. Whenever we talk it's in hushed tones and usually to complain about somebody else's personal habits. But we can all look sooooo busy! I'm surprised it's only two hours of personal time.

As for what should be done about it, I would refer to the great leader Ray Hunt: "Make the right thing easy and the wrong thing difficult."

Look at what has been made easy -- external, private communication via phoning, texting, emailing, and surfing. A manager can't take these tools away because they're the tools of the trade, too. But if you're isolated, it's a lot easier to think about your family, home, weekend, news, anything besides the ambiguity of your work.

And look at what has been made difficult -- internal, group communication via informal congregating, socializing, and sharing with your peers -- the stuff that feeds thought and competition. The one thing everybody at the work place has in common is the employer and the work! You would think an employer would recognize the benefit of their employees talking to each other because they're going to talk about work. They have to DO something to bring something to the table. And the supervisor can get a cup, too, and find out what the current topics are. But this activity is discouraged even while the work has become more complex.

I can't speak to the wider world but in my own pond it's lonely and not likely to get better -- neither the boss nor the boss's boss understands the power of the "coffee pot". So we employees are like those Japanese fighting fish at the pet store, each in our own bowls.

And yes, I can feel guilty about it and close the browser, but that does nothing for the underlying issue -- that it's easier to write comments to a web-site than to talk to my co-workers.

Elisa

Thank you Dan for this staggering statistic. Regardless of where you work - the percentage would apply to personal time used for many things except work. My guess is that during these turbulent times.. the percentage will creep up even higher as people as looking for potential new jobs and keeping tuned to the news and market info. For me, when this number equated to the US bank bailout number is had a huge impact. This number was out there before the crisis... so it is even more impactful.

Jane C

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