Poll exposes workers' idle secret

July 13, 2005|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,SUN STAFF

Before all you harried workers grouse about your grueling jobs and long hours, here's a message for you: Get back to work.

You know who you are. If you're surfing the Web, bidding on eBay or buying a book from Amazon.com at your desk, you're guilty. If you're gabbing with co-workers about how Dancing with the Stars is your secret moral weakness or watching Lance Armstrong overpower his rivals in the Tour de France, you're guilty.

The secret is out.

The average American worker wastes more than two hours a day - 2.09 hours per eight-hour workday, to be exact - or twice the amount their bosses expect that they'll fritter away, according to a new survey of more than 10,000 workers polled by America Online and Salary.com.

And those two hours don't include lunch and scheduled break times.

The survey also estimated that this wasted time cost employers $759 billion per year in salaries for which real work was expected but never actually performed.

While most executives contacted yesterday chuckled in surprise at the amount of time squandered - and even confessed their own sins - the news only confirmed what bank chairman, developer and self-made millionaire Edwin F. Hale Sr. already knew: Employee time management is a curse all employers must deal with.

"I have a fixation about it," Hale said. "We send e-mails out all the time to let people know that if you're going to be wasting time at work, we will know it. Some CEOs take it as a cost of doing business. I look at it as a problem that needs to be corrected."

Be warned, 1st Mariner Bank employees: While security programs are monitoring improper use of company computers, Hale and his top management are also watching. Just listen to his diatribe on one time-eater that particularly irks him:

"People take 15-minute smoke breaks several times a day - that ends up being a half-hour each time by the time they leave and come back to their desks. They're supposed to do it once in the morning and once in the afternoon, but I pass people several times a day outside. You're supposed to subtract that from your lunch time, but they don't. Everyone knows it's a hot button with me."

Smokers may be blowing Hale's lid, but the biggest distractions for most workers uncovered by the survey should come as no surprise. In descending order: surfing the Internet for personal use, socializing with co-workers, conducting personal business, spacing out, running errands and making personal calls.

Who hasn't picked up dry cleaning during the workday? Gossiped about the recent office party? Bought airline tickets for a vacation? Or called home to check on the kids?

If so, you are likely to work for one of the top five time-wasting industries, according to the survey. Those in insurance fritter away an average of 2.5 hours; public-sector types waste 2.4 hours; research and development types, 2.3 hours; and education workers, and software and Internet employees, 2.2 hours each.

Marylanders waste an above-average 2.4 hours a day, according to the survey, but that's nothing compared with those top-ranking slackers in Missouri, who waste 3.2 hours a day.

The survey didn't poll bosses, but a few local ones admit to being just as good at idle time as their workers. The difference is they consider at least some of that time part of the job.

"I get a lot of ribbing for cruising around the office, poking my head into tubes and socializing with workers," said Brian Ochletree, CEO of the Internet firm e.magination Network LLC. "But I believe that's important to retaining workers and keeping them happy.

"You have hands-off managers, and [you have] micromanagers freaking out because he saw you get coffee three times in one day. I prefer to be a hands-off manager."

Still, Ochletree admits that he's guilty of using company time on noncompany matters. He spent a half-hour yesterday solving the hiccups that popped up in getting his three children to summer camp. He's also known for checking in occasionally on his fantasy football league and losing all sense of time during the Masters.

"Going to the dentist, does that count?" asked Ochletree, whose Baltimore-based firm specializes in marketing, Web design, advertising and e-commerce.

But he does have a way of keeping his employees honest - e.magination has a tracking system that monitors how many billable hours each project or task should take. Computer programs red-flag any project that goes over budgeted time.

John R. Boo, senior vice president and director of Nasdaq trading at Ferris Baker Watts in Baltimore, views sporadic goof-off moments as a necessary evil.

"You should remember we don't have a conventional job," Boo said of his stockbrokers. "I work 50 hours some weeks. Others on the floor work 8 1/2 to nine hours a day with no lunch break. Sure, I hate to see people waste time. But it's not really a big issue here. When you're busy, you're doing 18 things at once. When the market isn't moving and stocks aren't moving, I'd rather people use their computers for something not directly productive rather than killing time off the trading room floor."

Many employers said they could forgive slight time indiscretions. But perhaps that's because most don't know that the surveyed workers said the No. 1 reason for wasted time is "lack of work."

Whether bosses have enough work to load up their own day isn't something to raise with a workaholic like Hale.

Asked at the end of an eight-minute, 57-second interview whether he ever wastes any time during the workday, Hale replied: "As a matter of fact, this is a long conversation for me."

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