In the realm of knowledge work, sometimes it’s really hard to pinpoint what employees are being paid for. Let’s imagine the role of an event coordinator earning $75,000 per year at a small to mid-sized organization. At that pay scale, we might assume that the employee is being paid for her creative thinking skills and knowledge expertise, in addition to literally running the show. Sure, a part of the job may be to call venues and find out their availability, or inspect an event space to make sure everything is in good order. But for someone earning $75,000 per year, the employee might also be expected to fulfill many roles that are difficult to define and even harder to measure. For example, the organization might want the employee to stay current with trends in event planning. She should have a good sense of what the event attendees will find impressive. What type of wine should be served at the event that reflects the organization well? How do you decorate a space so that it has an air of technological advancement versus looking deeply rooted in tradition? The organization wants the employee to have the necessary skills to answer all these questions, but how does anyone know the employee has these skills, other than gauging whether she’s doing a good job generally?
More importantly, what does the employee need to do to keep these skills current?
Knowledge workers are often expected to have expertise that’s difficult to define and measure. Plus, they’re not always given the resources to develop and maintain them.
I recently read a study on procrastination (Metin et al., 2016) that missed this very important point entirely. The researchers were partly interested in the idea of “cyberloafing,” a terribly outdated term that means little more than “dicking around online when one should be working.” Take a look at this excerpt from the paper:
“Studies report that employees spend on average 1.5 to 3 h on personal activities during their working hours (Paulsen, 2015). D’Abate and Eddy (2007) estimated the yearly loss due to personal (home and leisure related) activities during working hours as $8,875 per employee. According to other estimations, 30 to 65 percent of the time spent on internet surfing during the work day is unrelated to work (Sharma & Gupta, 2004), which leads to a 30 to 40 percent productivity loss that may add up to $85 billion per year in the US only (Lim & Teo, 2006). Briefly, the high costs of off-task behaviour highlight the necessity of understanding this phenomenon.”
Let’s think about the event planner again. If she spends two hours of her workday looking at photos of interior design and perusing social media, getting a sense of what’s popular and unpopular across a broad spectrum of people, many of whom are potential attendees to events she’ll coordinate, is that “personal activity?” I say no. What about if she chats online with other event planners to keep a good relationship with them so that they’ll share their contacts and pricing estimates with her? Is that “personal” activity? Is it work? For many knowledge workers, there’s a lot of gray area.
In the pre-internet age, companies would often subscribe to newspapers as well as industry magazines and journals and leave them around the office for employees to read to keep current. They would also have no problem picking up the tab for a business lunch with colleagues from another organization if it was in their benefit to play nice with those individuals. The validity of those expenditures weren’t typically questioned, or if they were, it wasn’t a question of their purpose. It had to do with their value or return on investment.
Metin and his fellow researchers collected some of their own data to estimate time spent cyberloafing and otherwise procrastinating at work. Three out of four questions about cyberloafing were just completely off the mark:
I use Instant Messaging (MSN, Skype, GTalk, WhatsApp…) at work.
I spend more than half an hour on social network sites (Facebook, Myspace, Twitter etc.) on work per day.
I read news online at work.
At the very end of the paper, the authors acknowledge that they should have asked whether these activities were unrelated to work. Many workplaces use instant messaging apps as part of their communication strategy. Many organizations have a presence on social networks and encourage their employees to participate in them. Many knowledge workers read news online at work because it informs their day-to-day job and in the broader sense, their job skills and knowledge!
Even when the authors acknowledge that they should have asked the question differently, they give a very narrow view of the reasons, writing, “For instance, for a journalist the item ‘I read news online at work’ might not necessarily impose procrastination.” A journalist reading news is a clear and obvious example. An event planner soaking up trends and ideas is just as valid, though. And again, it’s the event planner’s specialized knowledge of current trends and creative ideas that earns her that $75,000 a year salary, not her role in calling up venues and inspecting spaces.
Employees need to know how to stand up for themselves and justify behaviors that might be misunderstood as cyberloafing. They also need to know when to acknowledge that they are in fact procrastinating, although sometimes, what they are doing is taking microbreaks, which is another totally valid activity. Both employees and employers need to be aware of their online activities, including how much time is spent on them. But they also both need to acknowledge that online activity is often done in pursuit of skills that knowledge workers get paid good money to have.
Metin, B. U., Taris, T. W., & Peeters, M. C. W. (2016). Measuring procrastination at work and its associated workplace aspects, Personality and Individual Differences, June 2016. DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2016.06.006
Image by Carbon Tippy Toes, CC.