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Summary:

A British study says workers waste time on social networks like Facebook and Twitter, and that the resulting loss of productivity could be costing the economy as much as $22 billion. But do we need a study to tell us people waste time during work hours?

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Looking at how people use the Internet — and the effect that social networking has on their lives and on the economy — is a worthwhile endeavor, but do we really need a study to tell us that sites like Facebook and the Internet in general can eat into personal productivity? That was the conclusion arrived at in a recent analysis by a British employment website. The report added that all the time wasted by British workers on Twitter and Facebook and other social networks and websites could be costing the economy as much as $22 billion in lost productivity. But these types of studies — which have been around since personal computers first became popular — invariably overstate the effect that Internet or computer use actually has on personal productivity.

Employment site MyJobGroup.co.uk said it surveyed 1,000 British workers and found that almost 6 percent of them spent over an hour a day using social media of some kind, including Facebook and Twitter, or about one-eighth of their workday. By extension, the site concluded, about 2 million of Britain’s 34-million-person workforce likely were doing the same, costing the British economy about 14 billion pounds ($22 billion USD) in lost productivity. Over half of those surveyed said that they accessed social-media sites at work, and spent some portion of time tweeting, adding photos or video to a site like Facebook or updating their personal information.

This is the kind of study that is almost always used by companies and government departments to justify the blocking of such sites and services, as a defence against productivity declines. Similar concerns about the effect of PC games such as Solitaire and Minesweeper were epidemic in the early 1990s (and even later), as computers made their way into corporate offices. Following the Solitaire scourge the big danger was email, and the amount of time people spent on that. Once the Internet became commonplace in corporate environments, all the same productivity arguments were trotted out, along with the same kinds of studies.

The reality, of course, is that human beings will find ways to waste time regardless of whether or not they have Internet access, and regardless of whether they even have a computer on their desks. Daydreaming while looking out the office window has probably eaten up trillions of dollars worth of productive work-time as well, but no one calculates the economic cost of windows or sunshine. And then there are smoke breaks, lunch breaks, water-cooler chat, and the time workers spend standing around next to each others’ desks talking about what they did on the weekend. The Internet didn’t invent time-wasting, any more than Facebook or Twitter did.

The British website’s advice is that companies “would do well to monitor use of social networking sites during work hours and ensure that their employees are not abusing their freedom of access to these sites.” Just as many of them no doubt monitor how long their employees are taking for lunch, or whether they are staring out the window too much.

Related content from GigaOM Pro (sub req’d): Can Enterprise Privacy Survive Social Networking?

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user dullhunk

  1. Great post – had to waste some time to read it though ;)

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  2. There are times where wasting time is simply processing the bizarre project I have to absorb. I am a Facebook junkie of course! But, wasting time is a requirement at times simply because doing anything in a meaningful, thoughtful, efficient manner requires a plan rather than a simple task list.

    This is perhaps why I have worked for myself most of my life. Efficiency and effectiveness is much more important than the hours spent.

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  3. I had a boss who used to say that the quality of the day was measured in how many airplanes he saw from his office window. The more airplanes he had time to watch, the fewer the number of problems he had to deal with that day.

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  4. What these studies tend to ignore is that by ‘wasting time’ employees, especially those in software development or high stress or pressure positions, need to be able to distract themselves or let off some steam or just ‘free their mind’ or they will burn out very quickly.

    That’s a study I’d like to see. The amount of productivity lost having to train someone to replace a worker that burnt out.

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    1. That’s a great point, Anthony — in fact, studies have been done that show employees who “waste” time by socializing are actually less stressed and more productive overall. Thanks for the comment.

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      1. While this is true, the addiction to de-stressing and time wasting is not a subject to be taken lightly. Our interns especially are exhibiting alarmingly socialite-like behavior and openly resent their work assignments. They drink like fish at after hours gatherings and mess around online for hours on end during the work day, on their phones if we block the websites internally. They seem to require a lot more stimulus and stress relieving activity.

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  5. Pretty sure productivity is at an all time high. Isn’t that one of the big problems with the economic recovery, productivity has gotten so high that even if a company’s sales are going up, they don’t need to have as many workers as would have in the past?

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  6. Talk about stating the obvious, whats next? study on how smoking cigarettes still causes cancer.

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  7. While I’d agree that there is much waste in “social” (in-person and online), the benefits go beyond simply recharging one’s batteries. Inspiration is a broadly collaborative process. Something I read today, on a tech blog for example, could be a key ingredient in a brilliant idea I come up with a year from now.

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  8. Last time I was out on a Virginia winery picnic excursion with a bunch of DC-area friends of mine, one of the hilarious topics of conversation was how much time they actually spent working. The joke was “next to none”, followed by a long list of great sites (other than FB and YouTube) to visit during working hours, IE “Failblog” and “Collegehumor”, and then everyone pulled out their iPhones for app bragging hour. I completely believe in the results of this article.

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  9. [...] In a recent survey, Britain discovers that employees are distracted by social networking sites. [...]

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  10. TimeOP.com is a great solution to this problem. It empowers both the employees and the employer to monitor how they (or their team) spends time on the web and using various application.

    It does not deny access, but rather assigns responsibility for how productively time is used in an open, unintrusive fashion.

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