Wasting time

The Economist 29th October 2009, reported a study by Morse http://www.morse.com/press_20.htm claiming that in the UK  40 minutes per week are lost by employees on Twitter, Facebook and other social media at that this is costing UK businesses 1.38bilion in lost productivity. Morse has put some figures to the argument that I have been reading in at least 50% of the comments to my TED talk. Many comments disagreed with my view that the newfound possibility of maintaining contact with loved ones from work is a positive achievement, on the grounds that this is being abused and that “when at work one should just work”.

The study, and the comments, are a perfect example of what I am discussing regarding the growing tension between individuals and workplaces regarding access to personal communication channels. Although I believe that the tension is around a set of deeply held beliefs regarding the separation of the private and the professional, much of the discussions focus on the potential conflict between private communication and productivity.  The argument against an enmeshing of private communication at work is generally articulated as follows :  given the possibility, employees will waste their working  time on private communication channels and by wasting time reduce their productivity and thus engender losses to their companies.  The linear equation that links communication-to time-to productivity is rarely questions but this is exactly what I wish to do here.

The first point I wish to question is the amount of private communication really going on. How much time is being really “wasted”?

Year after year statistics show that the average mobile call is 2mns long, the Morse report claims another 8mns a day spent on social networks, Twitter is not an issue as it is used by only , a fraction of the UK population as yet (8% of internet users, of which 40% stop using the service after 1 week of subscribing, and after sending less than 10 messages).  If we look at the OFCOM data for 2008 they present the following daily (including home therefore) usage figures : 11 minutes per day on mobile, 13 on the land line, 25mns on internet,  225 on TV, 175 on radio.

So even if we assumed that all the time on the mobile and internet was done at work that would add up to 38 minutes a day. It is more likely that half of this is done at home or outside (or else why would people pay for internet access at home). The figure may still seem high, but we have to ask how these minutes are distributed during the working day ? It is unlikely that the time spent on these devices is clustered in one block, it is more likely that it s dotted along the day in units of 3 to 5 minutes. We will discuss further down of the cognitive impact of these minutes of communication in the flow of activity. Here we can discuss the impact of the overall figure of 15 to 20 minutes dedicated to personal communication during the working day.

The working day has changed over time and there still are significant differences in labour legislation between countries and differences in practices between professions. While in Europe historically we have seen a progressive decline in the number of daily working hours, in the UK from an average of 50 hour week last century to an average of 38h week today, there are no doubts that there has been an increase in productivity during the same period. In fact the reduction of the working hours has been determined by an increase of productivity.

Some commentators as Madeleine Bunting in her book Willing Slaves, argued that the last few years has seen an increase of pressure on workers. For instance in the last seven years we have seen a significant rise in the number of employees working in excess of 48 hours a week, rising from 10% in the late 90s to 26% now.  The number of people working a long week has also jumped. Estimates from 2000 -2002 suggest that those clocking up 60 hours a week have increased by a third, which equates to one sixth of the UK labour force.

Recent surveys estimate that only 44% of workers use up their full entitlement to annual leave (28 days in the UK). Reasons cited for not taking paid holiday often include a heavy workload or fear of upsetting the boss.  Within the working day : 65% of UK workers do not use the full 60 minutes of their entitled lunch time break. The average time for a break is now 27 minutes, and more and more people have at least 2 lunches a week sitting at their workstation. http://www.eurestservices.co.uk/Other/EatingAtWork.htm

One could argue that the time given up on having a long lunch is being dedicated to private communication, and that probably these conversations are being spread across the working day in a similar fashion as food consumption is being spread through the day.  If one looks at the overall productivity rates, the time spent at work, the role of PCs in accumulating tasks on individuals (pushing more and more administrative tasks that were in the past distributed on more employees onto each single individual) the issues of work time reduction is completely unjustified.


The second point is the relation between time and productivity.

Productivity is a measure of the ability to create goods and services from a given amount of labour,capital, materials, land, knowledge, time, or any combination of these. It is measured, basically, as output per unit of input, where the input could be land, labour, capital, etc Productivity can be measured relative to these different inputs. For example, output per acre of land, per pound invested, or per worker employed. However, it is important to note that these measures will be affected by changes to the other inputs. For example, output per worker will rise through capital investment in better equipment. Alongside the more obvious inputs such as labour or capital, there is also the concept of ‘total factor productivity’ (TFP). This captures the contribution to output of other more intangible factors: innovation, managerial skill, organisation, competition, and chance. TFP is particularly important to productivity growth, because while certain factors of production like land will always have a limited supply, the potential for increasing TFP is limitless. In principle, TFP is a more appealing measure of an economy’s efficiency as it attempts to measure output per unit of all inputs, and hence captures how effectively inputs are used together.http://www.statistics.gov.uk/articles/labour_market_trends/Labour_productivity.pdf

As this short quotation suggests, it is impossible nowadays to make a direct relation between labour and productivity and any modern approach to productivity takes into account the multiplicity of factors that interact with any single element to determine growth.  Models which equate directly labour time to productivity are ignoring the hundred other factors that affect work production.

The direct link between work time and productivity is rendered even more complex by the knowledge intensive activities that constitute many of the jobs that are created in the UK. In the Social Services for instance, where it is particularly hard to measure productivity, social workers estimate that they now spend more than 50% of their time on their PCs doing administrative tasks. Many process control activities involved in the manufacturing of goods or energy, critical tasks require very little active action from the operators but high levels of monitoring.  Many jobs are based on schedules where there are long periods of low activity and short peaks of very intense action. The continuous cycle modelled on a fordian factory worker, is less and less frequent.

The expectation that a worker is engaged in his work tasks for 8 or 9 h without interruption, distraction ignores the cycles of work as they have been designed in most work environments and ignores the natural cycles of attention of the human mind. We know that attention cannot be sustained for more than a certain amount of minutes and that many external and internal factors can affect a person’s capacity to sustain focused attention (external distracters, internal emotional states, motivation..). Management of attention is not just a question of willpower or control.  Most tasks allow for people to go through cycles of focus, defocus, rest and focus again. A few very attention intensive tasks such as air-traffic control, where safety depends on operator total attention, have specialised training programmes and very short work cycles (90mns then rest for some mns, and just 10 days of work a month). All other jobs are tolerant to moments of cognitive inattention and people on the job are usually good at identifying “natural” braking points for their activity cycles.  How people use the breaking points and what they do to regain attention has changed over time : cigarettes, coffee, sugary snacks are often associated with breaks and all contain stimulants of some kind. Social interaction such as chatting with colleagues or moving are also used as moments of relaxation. In the current context in which digital channels are available, it is probably the case that exchanges via text, email, or voice are being used as stimulants or relaxation during short breaks.

Any notion of productivity, must therefore incorporate some of the cognitive and social processes that organise work. The increase of overall productivity in the last 100 years did not correspond to a greater number of hours of work, but on the contrary a better allocation of resources between for instance humans and machines, a better management of resources, a higher level of education, a greater sense of autonomy and achievement in many roles, etc.  To equate productivity to time labour is not only simplistic but incorrect.

The third point is the relation between communication and waste.

Feminist sociologists such as Valery Bryson also comment on the definition of work and in particular the exclusion of private care, such as that provided by women to their children, elders and spouses, from the category of work. Gender and the Politics of Time Valery Bryson 2006 Policy Press.

In her argument parental care is a type of work that is principally carried out by women and that comes either to be added to the professional work or substitutes it. To consider therefore that the calls or messages sent by working adults to the people they are taking care of in order to coordinate activities, ensure safety, organise resources; are private personal calls, is an artifact of society. Checking that the children are home, or an elderly relative is safe, is a “personal” objective, inasmuch society currently does not recognise care-giving as a job of social relevance. The oppositional nature of care-private vs work-public renders all care related exchanges from the workplace as violations. If care was socially considered a “job” a call home would be equated to a call to a client or colleague.

Studying logs of mobile calls and texts it emerges that most calls are done to very close members of the individual’s social network such as family members or close friends. Many calls are routinised happening everyday at the same time and often correspond to moments in which caretakers verify that those under their responsability are well. Safety still is invoked as the main reason for owning and keeping a mobile phone. Ensuring safety is therefore one of the social tasks that are excluded from the definition of work, but that constitute a major “job” of the caretaker.  Digital communication from work is therefore helping the achievement of this task.


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