Monday, March 12, 2007


Quantifying "Personal Time" On The Job

Big Brother is a bean counter. That's all you need to know about the corporate world. The brief article at the link below cites a survey of 559 "cubicle dwellers" conducted by a staffing service called OfficeTeam. The respondents reported that they spent an average of 36 minutes per day "handling personal tasks while at the office." Women reported less time than men, 29 minutes versus 44. Workers between 18 and 34 admitted spending 45 minutes on average, those between 35 and 64 spent 32 minutes, and those 65 and up spent 17 minutes. (I cannot help but feel that those 65-plus individuals must be CEOs who exaggerate the purposefulness of their actions, because who else that age is left standing in any corporation these days? But no matter. The differences remain.)

A companion survey of 150 senior executives estimated that their people spent an average of 43 minutes "on non-work activities." The closest to that is the overall male figure of 44 minutes, which suggests that the senior executives - who are typically male - were simply extrapolating from their own behavior. Either that or they slightly underestimated the commitment and integrity of their underlings. Either interpretation does not speak especially well of them.

The question I have to ask is what constitutes "handling personal tasks while at the office"? Does it include coffee breaks, bathroom breaks, obligatory chit-chat with colleagues, taking off and hanging up one's outer clothes upon arriving in one's cube, and pulling them on when leaving? Does it include eating your lunch at your desk, which many of us often feel compelled to do? Does it even include thinking, daydreaming, the ineluctable wandering of one's thoughts? The guy who wrote the article is similarly uncertain. When he tallies up calls to his wife to expedite household matters, answering personal emails, and wolfing down his own lunch, he figures he spends 20 to 25 minutes doing personal stuff. He wonders if that is typical, and implores his readers - managers and worker-bees alike - to send in their comments and opinions.

The survey apparently offered no clear definition of what "handling personal tasks while at the office" or engaging in "non-work activities" actually entails. Therein lies its power. By keeping the classification of personal time nebulous, the survey induces respondents to underestimate it out of fear of overestimating it, and thus arrives at an artificially small figure intended to provoke intimidation and guilt in anyone who reads about it. If I counted everything that I did that could be construed as time spent simply being human, rather than wedded to a specific corporate task, I'd come up with a figure way more than 36 minutes in an eight hour period. I'll wager you would, too. This survey is yet another pseudo-scientific tool designed to amplify the sound of the whip cracking behind us.

"How long do personal tasks at work take?" from

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