The conversation was fascinating. These students—most of them administrative assistants—were simply thrilled that they could present a busy, productive demeanor to the boss and yet be goofing off. First I wondered how anyone in today’s workforce had time to be goofing off, surreptitiously or otherwise. But the longer I listened, the more I realized that the issue wasn’t as straightforward as I first had assumed.
Some of these people occasionally played Solitaire on what were rightfully their breaks. Others played a game or two once in a while to clear their minds or help them work through momentary writer’s blocks. In all cases, they were terrified of a boss seeing what they were doing and punishing them for it.
It didn’t take long for me to figure out that Solitaire was not the issue. These employees were working long hours. They were stressed. They had few breaks in the routine. And they believed they were in environments that were totally intolerant of any downtime at all.
There are a couple of simple approaches to this issue. One is to decide that employees will loaf a limited amount of time each day and just accept it, deciding not to waste management time monitoring and enforcing. The other is to crack down on loafing by limiting employee access to potential distractions, such as Solitaire or even the Internet.
These solutions, although simple, are also wrong-headed. Both of them beg the real issue, which is how we define jobs and productivity in the ’90s. Our employees have more control over their own jobs and responsibilities than ever. Many of them work offsite all the time or frequently. Some benefit directly from access to the Internet, and nearly everyone needs computer applications of various kinds just to function.
Clearly, there is value in using the tools we have. Just as clearly, there will be people who abuse those tools. If we’ve done our jobs properly, others in the organization can handle the obvious unacceptable behavior: employees accessing pornography on the Internet while at work, employees so addicted to Solitaire they don’t complete their work, employees using e-mail to harass others and so on.
That leaves the more complicated issues to us. If an editor here on staff is surfing the Net, for example, is he or she goofing off or learning how to gather data or present information in electronic format? If I play a game of Solitaire while I wrestle with a problematic headline, is that costing the company more than if I got up and got a cup of coffee? And ultimately, do I care whether an employee spends some time loafing if he or she meets the job standards?
These are the questions we must ask ourselves, and the answers may not be easy to find. This is one more example of the ambiguity that infuses business today and that demands reasoned thinking by professionals. After all, someone must define work, jobs and productivity before we can define loafing.
Personnel Journal, December 1996, Vol. 75, No. 12, p. 4.