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American workers: Lazy or creative?

Salary.com's Bill Coleman sees value in Web surfing and other time "wasting" activities at work.

The overworked American appears to be fighting back, and Bill Coleman is watching closely.

Coleman is senior vice president of compensation at Salary.com, a role he describes as being like "a person in charge of computers at Dell or cars at Ford."

Coleman and crew recently conducted a survey on time wasted at work, and they came up with some intriguing findings. Among them: Personal Internet surfing ranked as the top method of cooling one's heels at the office. It was cited by 44.7 percent of respondents as their primary time wasting activity, followed by socializing with co-workers (23.4 percent) and conducting personal business (6.8 percent).

There is sort of a sociological change going on where there isn't a bright line between what work time is and what personal time is.

The average worker admits to frittering away 2.09 hours per day, not counting lunch and scheduled break time, according to the report. That's far more time than the roughly one hour per day employers expect the average employee to waste, the report said. The extra unproductive time adds up to $759 billion annually in salaries for which companies get no apparent benefit, the report said.

As Coleman sees it, workers are goofing off partly because they're putting in more hours on the job. What's more, he suggested, personal and professional time are blending.

"Work is invading our personal time and therefore it makes sense that personal activities are invading work time," he said.

CNET News.com recently spoke with Coleman about his research on goofing off, including findings about men, women and wasting time, the way loafing in some cases can help the bottom line and the continued importance of the water cooler.

Q: What was surprising to you, if anything, about your survey?
Coleman: There were a few things that were surprising about it. One is that people were comfortable and willing to admit how they were spending their time or not spending their time appropriately at work.

I think that it was also curious (that) men and women appeared to waste the same amount of time at work. What made that an interesting point is that we did a follow-on study asking employers what they thought their employees were doing as far as wasting time at work and we also asked them whether they thought men or women wasted more time. And the employers, their human resource people, pretty much think that women waste more time than men. So that was shocking.

What's the rationale for that perception?
Coleman: We didn't ask any follow-up questions about why they thought or what they thought; we were just curious as to what they expected. I think that the rationale is, however, that women tend to come to and leave the workforce for various issues related to family and kids--either having them or going off and taking care of them. And I think that mothers tend to be more linked to childcare and family care than fathers. And so I think human resource people just apply that to the women in the workforce.

Personal Web surfing was the top time wasting activity. Do you guys see that that may have been somewhat biased by the fact that this is a Web-based survey?
Coleman: Yes.

That tends to skew the results toward computer types.
Coleman: It certainly could influence the results, although at this point in time, the vast majority of people do have Internet access.

These people were not ready to give their names?
Coleman: We did not ask for names.

Even with that anonymity, you're still surprised by the frankness about time wasting?
Coleman: Yes, and I think that part of the reason that this got such a good response was that it's an issue that people think about on some sort of regular basis. I think most of us when we are wasting time at work think about whether or not that's appropriate and whether we're wasting more than our co-workers.

Not all nonproductive time that an employee spends is a complete waste. Some of it is creative or constructive waste.

We were able to get...I think a little more than 10,000 people to participate in this survey. It means that there are a lot of people that are interested in providing information and then seeing what the result was.

Is that more than you normally get for these kinds of surveys?
Coleman: Yes. We've done various kinds of surveys. I believe this is one of the larger ones. (But) I don't want to artificially inflate the results or mislead people. Part of the reason (for the large response) is because it's sort of an interesting, perhaps salacious topic, but also we did do the survey in conjunction with AOL. AOL has a fairly active user base, and so that does also help in getting the participation numbers higher than what we would normally see.

I want to ask about the response to the question about personal Internet surfing. You see that as including e-mail and IM-type activities?
Coleman: Yes. In the actual survey they were categorized together as using the Internet for personal use, including Web surfing, e-mail--personal e-mailing--and personal IMing.

Had we known how big the response rate was going to be, we would have asked three separate questions. I think that we will be doing a follow-up survey or at least redoing this survey next year to update it, and I think that we will break it out a little bit differently to try and capture the differences in those sub-activities.

You found that the average amount of time wasted is 2.09 hours a day, about twice what managers expect from workers. What do you think some of the reasons for this gap are? Could this relate to some kind of human limit to what people can productively give in a job?
Coleman: That would be the first part of my answer. The workday or work week has extended in the past several decades for the American worker. I mean, it's somewhat ironic that we're talking about time wasted at work at the same time Americans are talking about how overworked they are.

So certainly, people are wasting more time because they are spending more time at work, but also I believe that there is sort of a sociological change going on where there isn't a bright line between what work time is and what personal time is. It's sort of the combination of people expected to be "on call" nights and weekends for many jobs or be available for many jobs or just having to take work home.

They've got to answer the cell phone.
Coleman: Exactly, and then we have cell phones and BlackBerries and pagers and e-mail where people are expected to check their e-mail on weekends in many jobs. So work is invading our personal time and therefore it makes sense that personal activities are invading work time. Somehow technology is ahead of the corporate vision of what an appropriate workday is.

In other words, it's giving people tools or letting them do what they want to do?
Coleman: The workday is changing and the workday is not strictly a 9-to-5 window of opportunity where the employer has access to you and whatever it is you do. The employer is expecting access outside those hours for work purposes. And as a result of that, the things that you would be doing outside those work hours, things like paying your bills, sometimes find their way into the 9-to-5 window. So technology makes it possible for you to easily pay your bills at the office. And that Saturday afternoon emergency phone call gives you the rationalization or justification to do it--to say, "Well I'm working now, so I have a little bit of fuzzy time, a little bit of spare time on Monday so I can pay my bills."

In other words, it's just kind of quid pro quo almost in the mind.
Coleman: Right. And one of the reasons people gave for wasting time is they feel that they're not being paid appropriately for the work they're doing. And so it is sort of quid pro quo, in that an individual employee's ability to increase his or her pay is limited, but their ability to decrease the number of hours they actually work is not as limited.

Your quote in the press release was kind of interesting--about this idea of creative waste. If I'm getting you right, you're saying that this time of loafing, if you're doing it in a way that sparks new ideas for a company, it's actually a good thing for the company overall.
Coleman: Not all nonproductive time that an employee spends is a complete waste. Some of it is creative or constructive waste. By that I mean it's an opportunity for soft learning, if you will. Reading a newspaper, for example. That's clearly a nonproductive activity for most jobs. However, the education you gain, the things you learn (are useful), whether you're a reporter or a consultant or an accountant.

So I shouldn't feel bad about surfing The New York Times all the time.
Coleman: Well certainly, you shouldn't feel bad about surfing The New York Times or reading any news article that could be relevant to what you do and could generate a new story idea for you. That's an example of creative waste.

Is there any evidence that water cooler conversations are increasing in the absolute time people are spending on them or in their quality? Maybe the fact that people don't interact with colleagues as much makes those water cooler conversations more crucial.
Coleman: Bingo. I don't have any kind of study to prove this point, but human beings are clearly social animals. So much of at least office workers' time is spent sitting at a desk in front of a computer doing something. It's non-interactive, at least not a face-to-face human interaction. I think that people are somewhat starved for those kind of interactions and now seek them out more than 10 or 20 years ago when a lot of your work time was spent interacting directly with a person rather than e-mailing the person or instant messaging the person.

So, I think that the time at the water cooler or the chatting in the halls may actually be increasing because it's sort of a fundamental human need that has been replaced by technology. Or at least the time spent talking has been replaced by technology. And so we are finding new ways or new reasons, new excuses to talk to each other.