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Surf’s Up: Is productivity down? [The Journal]

by Hope Katz Gibbs
The Journal
Nov. 16, 1996

Are your computer-savvy employees threatening your company’s productivity?

Yes, according to the majority of executives polled by Robert Half International, a job placement service for accounting, finance and information technology.

Earlier this year, the firm polled 150 executives at 1,000 companies asking, “Is employee time spent accessing the Internet for non-business purposes considered a threat to productivity today.”

Fifty-five percent of those surveyed said, “yes.”

The problem: employers suspect that their workers are using the Internet and other on-line services (such as America Online and CompuServe) for personal reasons such as researching stock quotes, going into chat rooms, and catching up on the latest magazines.

But companies shouldn’t stop their employees from surfing the Internet, says Max Messmer, chairman and CEO of Robert Half International. They should have managers work closer with staff to make sure productivity doesn’t suffer.

“As with any misuse of time in the workplace, it is incumbent on managers to work closely enough with their staff to take notice of productivity losses,” says Messmer. “Time theft within a company in any form may be indicative of deeper problems with an employee’s initiative, work ethic or job satisfaction, which supervisors must discuss openly with their employees sooner rather than later.”

Just how big is the problem? A recent foray into the chat rooms of America Online during workday hours—starting at 11 a.m. and ending at 12:05 p.m.—produced some interesting, albeit unofficial, findings.

Most of the 37 chat rooms in progress were filled with about 20 or more people. We asked if they were at work, and if so, why they were chatting on AOL?

Follow are some of the responses:

“Yes, I’m at work,” said one. “And if i get caught I’m in trouble. I am a physician’s assistant and I’m busy. But it is hard not to play. You know, I don’t really want to talk about this.”

And he was gone.

Another respondent, who reported to be a twenty something that worked at a retail chain, typed in, “I’m the store manager so THEY can’t tell me anything.”

A 26-year-old computer technician had a similar response. “I am just very angry at the thought [that someone would be upset that he’s chatting and not working]. Just because I am given a sum of money I don’t think the company can direct me. If they are treating the employees correctly and with respect these distractions become reduced to problem employees who are far more disruptive than simply chatting online when they aren’t supposed to.”

And another chatter said he works at a T-shirt company and mostly uses the Internet to transfer files with the artist who creates the designs.

“I learn a lot [on the Internet] like right now I’m talking to you for free,” he says. “Any time I spend too much time in chat rooms, I make up the difference. I mostly chat while I download files, and I try to lend a helping hand to others who have questions about the Internet that I can answer. Besides, if I don’t use the computer it just sits stagnant.”

But stagnant computers and helping cyber-friends isn’t the point of using the Internet at work, says Cecilia Mandanis, the Robert Half area manager for Virginia, Maryland, and Washington. “Employees who spend company time surfing the Internet for non-business purposes risk losing the trust of their supervisors,” she says.

Her advice: “Leave personal Internet communications for the home or library. But remember that honing your Web skills for justifiable business needs will not only make you more indispensable on the job, it will boost your marketability and career advancement opportunities.”

Exactly, says a 22-year-old graphic designer who popped up in another chat.

“Although I have a direct Internet connection at work, I find that I prefer to handle personal e-mail at home,” he said. “When I am chatting at work, it’s usually to find the answer to a question that none of my co-workers can resolve. In that respect, not only does it not take away from my productivity, it adds to it.”

Besides, he says, “if your job requires you to use the Internet, then a certain amount of time spent perusing your own interests is not only expected, but can be beneficial. If I am surfing around, or ‘geeking,’ as it’s called, I see things and absorb things that may be useful later at work.”


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"I get by with a little help from my friends," says Hope, who gives special thanks to:

• MICHAEL GIBBS, website illustration and design: www.michaelgibbs.com
• MAX KUKOY, website development: www.maxwebworks.com
• STEVE BARRETT, portrait of Hope on Bio page: www.stevebarrettphotography.com

Contact HOPE KATZ GIBBS by phone [703-346-6975] or email.