Corporate America has long been a source of fodder for comedians, anti-establishment naysayers, and even 9-to-5 workers themselves. Just this morning, as I waited for the bus alongside a cluster of other women, all of us wearing nearly identical black coats and sporting similar bags both on our shoulders and under our eyes, I watched a strapping young EMT with dreadlocks checking us out through the window of his ambulance. He smiled cruelly as he watched, as if thinking, Look at those office drones—they’re like cattle waiting to be herded downtown. They’re probably addicted to canned air.
This snarky sentiment is so prevalent in American society that animator/director Mike Judge wrote an entire movie in 1999—and a brilliant one at that—about just how bleak life inside cubicle walls can get. If you haven’t seen Office Space yet, drop everything and rent it. If you have, you probably laughed as hard as I did during the scene in which the main character, Peter Gibbons, describes a typical workday at his company, Initech, to two consultants who’ve been hired to orchestrate layoffs there. “I generally come in at least fifteen minutes late,” Peter begins, and goes on to say, “Uh, and after that, I just sorta space out for about an hour … I just stare at my desk, but it looks like I’m working. I do that for probably another hour after lunch, too … In a given week, I probably do about fifteen minutes of real, actual work.”
Peter may seem like an extreme example of workplace lassitude, but the truth is, many Americans aren’t far off from being just like him. According to a 2005 joint study by AOL (formerly America Online) and Salary.com, employees waste 2.09 hours on average in an eight-hour workday—and that doesn’t even include the time they take off for lunch. Those among us who delight in underachieving and finding loopholes may feel empowered by this statistic, but the bigger question is, exactly what are these people doing with all that downtime? And why do they feel justified in wasting so much of their own time and so much of their employers’ money?
AOL and Salary.com’s findings were based on an online poll of 10,044 American employees. According to these respondents, the top five time-wasting culprits (in descending order of popularity) were personal Internet use, socializing with coworkers, conducting personal business, spacing out (à la Peter Gibbons), and running personal errands. Of these activities, the first was by far the most prevalent: 44.7 percent of the surveyed workers claimed that surfing the Web was their primary non-work-related activity. The study also found that men and women squandered equal amounts of workday time; notably, however, the majority of human resources managers who participated had the impression that women were less efficient than their male coworkers.
Since 2005, Salary.com has conducted this same poll annually—it’s now known simply as the Wasting Time at Work Survey—and has achieved strikingly similar results each year. In 2008, personal online use, followed by fraternizing with colleagues, still topped the list of time wasters, though personal phone calls replaced spacing out as the fourth-most-popular activity. Differences in efficiency between different age groups have emerged as another common thread since the survey first occurred: since 2005, employees age fifty and older have reported wasting only thirty minutes or less each workday, as opposed to the most egregious group, people born between 1980 and 1985, who spend an average of two hours per day slacking off. (So much for bright young minds.)
Stuck in a Rut
Some employers might be shocked to realize that their worker bees aren’t buzzing quite as busily as they should be, but these yearly Salary.com studies also point the finger at the underserved companies themselves for not providing their staffs with enough incentive to focus on the tasks at hand. In 2008, 46 percent of the Salary.com respondents indicated that professional dissatisfaction was driving them to waste time at work, 34 percent felt underpaid, 24 percent believed they didn’t have sufficient deadlines or incentives to perform, 19 percent claimed their workdays were too long, and 18 percent accused coworkers and friends of distracting them during business hours.
All of these factors paint a grim picture of life in the average American workplace—and when employees become resentful, they rebel in small but insidious ways against the institutions that they believe are neglecting or overworking them. For the employers, the cumulative damage inefficient, embittered workers cause can be staggering—according to the AOL/Salary.com study in 2005, the 2.09 average hours wasted in the American workplace cost companies $759 billion in wages for which they received no return on investment. And for the employees, using work hours to engage in non-work-related pursuits can be self-defeating; time that could be spent getting ahead on projects or acquiring new skills to work toward a promotion is too often thrown away on shopping online, buying groceries, or talking to friends on the phone.
Waste Not, Want Not
If you’re among the many Americans who aren’t fulfilled by their jobs, remember that only you can change your situation. Whether that means actively seeking out more stimulating tasks in your current role or changing careers altogether is an individual decision, but making small adjustments can mean the difference between dreading going to work every morning and actually enjoying your day-to-day.
First, take baby steps—make a concerted effort to set manageable goals regarding what you hope to accomplish each workday. Create a to-do list when you arrive at work; then make a pledge to yourself that you’ll work uninterrupted for a predetermined amount of time, be it one hour or half the day. Don’t open any non-work-related Internet windows or check personal email; rather than succumbing to these distractions, tackle your most difficult projects first. When you’ve reached the end of that time period, see how many tasks you’re able to check off—and use that as a gauge to adjust your list as needed in the days following.
Second, make it a priority to organize your workspace—even if you have to sacrifice a lunch hour or two to get it done. Sanitize your desk, keyboard, phone, and other work surfaces, file loose papers, and display your to-do list prominently.
Finally, establish your own rewards system if you believe your employer doesn’t appreciate your efforts enough. For example, if you complete your to-do list every day for an entire week, treat yourself to a delicious dinner, a bottle of good wine, or even just a long bath. After all, taking time to pat yourself on the back for your hard work is just as important as receiving accolades from your colleagues.
Millions of Americans are fortunate to work for companies that don’t put them under a microscope and trust that their time-management skills are well developed. But when studies like AOL and Salary.com’s expose the startling degree to which many workers are misallocating their business hours, it’s time for employers and employees alike to assess and revamp their professional habits. Peter Gibbons may have ended up being promoted in Office Space after he owned up to his laziness, but that’s what’s known in the film world as suspension of disbelief.
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