Cyberslacking epidemic

Are companies losing billions of dollars to recreational surfing and e-mail chitchat?

Published November 24, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

This week's Newsweek reports on the battle that American employers are waging against the dread epidemic of "cyberslacking" -- recreational surfing on the job. "Personal surfing and e-mailing can seriously strain a company's computer network," Newsweek seriously reports, citing a figure of $1 billion a year in wasted computer resources, plus "billions of dollars in lost productivity."

Boy, billions of dollars. Sounds like a heck of a problem, doesn't it? And yet hardly anyone is able to talk about it with a completely straight face. Even one spokeswoman for a company cracking down on personal e-mail use admits to Newsweek that she does some of her clothes shopping at work.

Imagine that Newsweek had run an article about companies cracking down on personal phone use. And imagine that it had been illustrated with copious statistics about how personal use of the phone at work costs employers billions of dollars in lost productivity -- plus, undoubtedly, hundreds of millions of dollars worth of wear and tear on headsets.

Well, you can't really imagine it. It would never happen. Not because personal phone use doesn't cost companies billions of dollars in lost productivity (it probably does), but because no more than a tiny portion of Newsweek's readers would feel the tiniest trace of sympathy for the grim-faced managers explaining how employees were robbing them of time that was rightfully theirs. Plenty of these employees are probably squeezing a few personal errands into a 60-hour work week.

The advent of e-mail and the Internet has brought out of the woodwork a whole army of efficiency experts and dismal consultants, all seemingly stepping right out of the pages of Dilbert, fingers wagging away at the employee who dares to sneak off with 10 minutes of the company's precious time. It calls to mind the advice of F.W. Taylor, the turn-of-the-century management expert who counseled managers to monitor the precise number of seconds it took their workers to complete a task.

The net effect of the new Taylorism, as of the old, is to make the work world a grimmer and more dehumanizing place. Companies can develop ever more elaborate ways of monitoring their workers, but all they will gain for it is the chance to play a complicated game of cat and mouse with workers who resent the many hours they give to their employers. The end result of the old Taylorism was the moribund American car factories of the 1970s -- factories in which workers who hated their jobs would put out shoddy products that nobody wanted to buy. Perhaps some companies still haven't figured out that the costs in lost productivity of having an adversarial relationship with their employees might be even higher than those of recreational Web surfing.

By Mark Gimein

Mark Gimein is a staff writer for Salon Technology.

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