Dealing with desk potatoes

Aug 21 2006 by Dan Bobinski Print This Article

They're sprouting up everywhere. They're people who sit at their desks all day without getting much done. The Internet appears to be one major culprit, computer games another - and it is costing employers a fortune.

The SBT Corporation, an accounting firm based in Sausalito, California, surveyed over 6,000 office workers and concluded that U.S. workers spend half a billion hours per year playing games on the job, at a cost of $10 billion in lost productivity. And that's not even counting the time spent surfing the web at work for personal use.

I'm not trying to start a spitting contest. The Internet has my full support as a powerful tool and resource that saves a great deal of time.

But like anything else, too much of a good thing can be a bad thing. According to one of my clients, "www" stands for "worldwide waste of time." Too often he's seen people playing minesweeper or solitaire or reading the sports pages online, and not getting their work done.

Such people would qualify as desk potatoes—akin to couch potatoes, in that they sit around a lot and don't accomplish much.

Unfortunately, many supervisors shy away from confronting desk potatoes for fear of being labeled a micro-manager if they ask "what are you working on?"

In times past managers could see what someone was working on as they walked by, as whatever was on one's desk gave it away. Card games couldn't be hidden with the click of a mouse. One couldn't read a travel brochure without someone knowing about it.

Today that's all different. In fact, for $30 you can buy software called "Anti Boss Key," which allows you to hide whatever game or website you are on and restore windows to the program you are supposed to be working on, simply by pressing a hotkey or clicking your mouse.

To put it simply, this is software that encourages people to lie to their employers.

I imagine that if an employer found such software on a computer it would lead to harsher discipline than just finding someone goofing off. Goofing off is one thing. Deception is another.

It's kind of like getting pulled over for speeding and the cop sees you have a radar detector. At that point the odds go way up that you're getting a ticket instead of a verbal warning.

Another problem is that although many companies allow personal use of the Internet, people seriously underestimate how much time they spend on it. In the sixth annual [email protected] study by Websense, Inc, employees reported that they spend an average of 3.4 hours per week using the Internet for personal use at work.

But IT departments who monitor such usage find the actual time spent on personal surfing on the job to be 5.9 hours per week. That's quite a difference, and quite a bit of extra surfing (almost 15 percent of a 40-hour week).

So what to do? If you're an employee, realize that your employer pays you to do things for him or her, not for you. When you call a plumber out to your house, you certainly don't want to pay for his time if he sits down to a couple of games of solitaire instead of fixing your pipes.

If you're a manager or an employer, it's best to clearly define policy for computer use at work. But be careful with this; today's workers want flexibility. If you go for zero tolerance on personal computer use at work it's much like squeezing too tight on a bar of soap - those employees will slip right out of your fingers and move on to work for someone else.

With regard to games, some organizations remove all of them from company computers and allow only the IT department to install new software. But there's a problem with this, too. Research shows that computer games can be beneficial for stress-relief on lunch or on breaks - especially if such games require rational thinking instead of manual dexterity. Therefore, it may be reasonable to keep games around - even if it's one or two computers set up in the lunchroom or break room "for game and personal use."

Bottom line, personal computer use is much like personal phone calls. A limited, reasonable amount makes sense or you can lose good people. But to avoid growing desk potatoes, make sure your policies are known by all, and be sure to put your policies in writing.

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About The Author

Dan Bobinski
Dan Bobinski

Daniel Bobinski teaches teams and individuals how to use emotional intelligence and how to create high impact training. He’s also a best-selling author, a popular speaker, and he loves helping teams and individuals achieve workplace excellence

Older Comments

I'm sure we can all think of a 'desk potato'. Some of us may even have qualified at some point. Uh... guilty!

I reckon if my IT department looked at my web usage, they would see that whenever there is a cricket match on, I have the online scoreboard minimised. I only look at it for a few seconds at a time, but the stats would show hours of usage!

We have one of those sites where the standard desktop PC 'build' excludes all game software, but Internet access is permitted. although the sites we access are monitored.

Generally, it is felt that, as long as managers are monitoring their staff's workload and productivity, there shouldn't be a problem. Give someone enough work to do, goes the theory, and they are less likely to spend time surfing.


Quiller London, UK

The problem with having the ticker score board minimized is that it is still running in the background and being updated by the source site. Thus, you are taking vital bandwidth away from the employees in your office who actually NEED that bandwidth to work.

I recently busted an employee because he had the scoreboards for an even open for 4 hours every day - and during those 4 hours there is noticible system performance degradation each day.

Unfortunately, too many employees don't understand the depth of their 'innocent' surf habits - thus we, as employers, must utilize the software that allows us to monitor use - and what appears to be use is that a site is open - SpectorSoft is a valuable tool that shows not only how long a site has been open on an employee's workstation, but how long it was in the foreground.

The fact still remains, that if you are using your employer's tools to goof off and/or to do personal 'stuff' during your work day, then you are basically stealing a portion of your paycheck - - absolutely no different than stealing office supplies.

D Landrum Texas, USA

Although persuing personal interests at company expense is wrong, I can't help but think this phenomenon is a human reaction to the workaholic ethic that seems to perpetuate most modern workplaces. In large open plan offices, a few minutes conversation with a colleague to network or break up periods of concentration on work soon inspire frowns and disapproval from those who are currently mid-flow with their spreadsheets and mailboxes. It is expected that you don't take breaks, because then you are not considered to be working hard enough, but this completely ignores the reality that trying to apply your mind consistently for 8 hours at a time will actually lead to burn out and reduced productivity. Its during the breaks that your subconscious goes to work on the real tricky problems.

So we all keep our heads down, which perpetuates the myth that everyone else is conforming to the workaholic ideal, which increases the pressure, which makes us more likely to all keep our heads down ... is it any wonder office dwellers resort to some occasional 'virtual escape'?