In a recent post Pat Phelan asked the question "what's the cost of Twitter?" and then tallied up all the time he felt was being spent on twitter to give an answer to that question. His answer, in my opinion, is completely over the top in the monetary value he came to but that isn't the point of this post.
The point I want to make is related to these productivity valuations that supposedly tell us of all the money we're losing from employees who waste time at work. When I hear a calculation like that it makes me think back to a story of when I first started my current job. I was still relatively young (22) and the story involves one of my first acts in regards to the question of user productivity.
Understand that the agency I work at was growing and I was their first full time computer person so when I came on they suddenly wanted to fix all kinds of computer related grievances that had been bothering them. First on that list was the use of on-line banking and travel agencies.
I don't know why the CEO at the time had such an issue with these sites but he was absolutely convinced they were sucking up productivity at an alarming rate and wanted them banned. A little over half a decade later I like to think I'm a good enough diplomat to stop this type of thing but at the time I just wanted to impress so I went along with it.
I think one of the biggest problems people have in this world is that they don't keep their eye on what they are actually trying to accomplish and follow their actions to their logical conclusion to see if those actions achieve that goal. So in this case we banned all online banking and travel sites without asking ourselves "how will the users respond?" The users...as one might guess...just used the phone instead.
Not only did they use the phone but they took longer doing it. Banks and Travel Agencies went on line in the first place to save time on their end so it stood to reason that people now forced to use the phone would spend even more time doing the same personal tasks if cut off from the online method.
Eventually the ban was lifted and the users went back to using the web sites but the year or so that it was in place probably cost us 10s of thousands of dollars in further wasted labor, if these supposed "time wasters" were really costing that much. But here's the thing, as far as anyone can tell, there was no dip in productivity during this whole ordeal.
People are going to waste time at work but if they are good employees they're also going to spend time on work at home. Companies who try to eek out every minute of productivity from employees miss that point. From everything I've seen it really is much more effective to incentivize performance than it is to try to prevent lack of performance. There are simply too many ways to do work and too many ways to waste to truly determine how effective an employee is. Knowing what you want from an employee and letting them find a way to produce it is really the best way to get productivity.
That way you don't waste your time parsing every second of their day in a futile attempt to force them into producing something they probably would have produced had you just left them to their own devices.
Finally, on a side note, don't blame the PC. The PC provides a lot of ways for employees to waste time but so does the rest of the world. It isn't unheard of for people to simply stop working and stare at the ceiling for an hour. Trying to cut off a few time wasters (such as those on the PC) isn't going to make any difference and, in cases such as the above example, may even make things worse.