Leisure: Pushed to the brink

Downtime is important, even at work.

Depending on which survey you choose to believe, the average worker wastes anywhere from three to nine hours a week on the Internet, costing the U.S. economy alone as much as US$178 billion in lost productivity. Never mind that many of these reports come from companies selling computer-monitoring software, that none of them say how much time employees frittered away in previous eras, or that productivity is actually on the rise and has been for quite some time. Statistics Canada pegs growth at about 2% annually since 1961, and the output of many retirement-age workers is 2-1/2 times greater than when they started their careers. The hippies had time for a whole Summer of Love, while a quarter of Canadians now don’t even take their full vacation allotment, according to an Ipsos Reid poll.

It turns out this non-stop rise in productivity, rather than any “wasted time,” is actually what really threatens workforce effectiveness. We’re busier than we’ve ever been, and that’s not a good thing. Creative-thinking knowledge workers — now our most valuable assets — are being pushed to the mental brink. “We’re caught in a terrible addiction to meaningless e-mail, meaningless documentation and utterly disastrous meetings where everybody’s sitting around, wishing they were somewhere else,” says Tom DeMarco, principal of the Atlantic Systems Guild, an international consulting organization, and author of Slack: Getting Past Burnout, Busywork and the Myth of Total Efficiency. “If people are to be creative, they have to have some time for creativity to happen. That means they can’t be operational all the time.”

The notion of personal web surfing as a scourge of modern business is the product of a very outdated way of thinking. Despite increasingly blurred work/life boundaries, a quantitative culture — in which busyness is synonymous with productivity — persists. Those who come to the office early and stay late are deemed hard-working, while those who slip out mid-afternoon are coasting. An employee who keeps up with her e-mail by BlackBerry on lunch breaks (assuming she takes them) is a real go-getter, while someone who spends a couple of hours a day managing his portfolio, catching up on personal e-mail and shopping on eBay is wasting company time.

But with work at home and home at work, productivity can no longer be measured by the clock. Suzanne Simpson, president of Ottawa consulting firm Human Resource Systems Group, says her company doesn’t even bother monitoring whether employees come in at 9 and leave at 5, nor what they’re doing online. “It’s a matter of whether they get their work done, whether the clients are happy and whether they’re contributing new thoughts and ideas on improving the business,” she says.

Since all employees operate on different levels of efficiency, such a results-focused approach allows management to distinguish between those workers who are lazy or unqualified and those who are simply under-challenged. “If you have someone that wants more opportunities to demonstrate their competence, then having too much time is going to be demotivating for them,” says David Zweig, associate professor of organizational behaviour at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management.

Rather than saddling under-challenged employees with extra assignments — which could be seen as a punishment — Zweig recommends managers talk to employees and determine their aspirations and work appetites. If desired, more tasks or greater responsibility should be made available. But if they’re satisfied with the workload and the spare time it affords, Zweig says managers should accept that decision. “Trying to give off the perception that they have enough work to do is often more stressful than being overworked,” he says. “If things are getting done on time, then there should be some slack given for non-work activities.”

Zweig believes that management-endorsed downtime lets employees concentrate more effectively on the work at hand. If they can take care of personal business — paying bills, catching up with the kids at college — without cramming it all in during a scheduled break, their minds will be clearer.

The success of this kind of flexible environment hinges on building trust between supervisors and employees. When time management is downloaded to workers, expectations and limits need to be clearly laid out. “If they understand the reasons behind what the employer expects from them, most employees will not abuse the privilege,” says Zweig, noting that a lack of explanation for restricting certain activities sends a message to workers that they can’t be trusted. The same message is sent when supervisors use monitoring or filtering software on office computers.

But even when Internet use is completely out of the picture, passing some management responsibilities on to employees can have big benefits. For DeMarco, the ideal example of delegating control came from a Kraft Foods factory in Jonesboro, Ark. “The foreman had a rule that anybody — anybody — that worked for him at any level could stop the assembly line at any time,” DeMarco recalls. “It was used very thoughtfully by people who’d say, ‘OK, there’s a problem here, and we need to solve it,’ rather than press on, ignoring it.” Most offices don’t have a “stop” button, but giving employees the ability to pause, step back and take stock is important no matter what the environment. When they’re ready to start the line moving again, it’ll be running much more smoothly.