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The Digital Water Cooler

It’s not a new idea. Co-workers have gathered to chat around the water-cooler, well, since they invented water coolers. And managers have tried their best to minimize the amount of excess socializing at the corporate watering hole for decades.

Desktop access to technology for most workers, though, has given rise to a new place for socializing. It’s email and in addition to browsing the web, it’s single-handedly reduced productivity levels of organizations worldwide and created an added source of frustration for many management teams.

Now we’re not talking about business related email. Although a show-of-hands in most offices would confirm that there’s entirely too much of that. What we’re referring to is email – composed and exchanged at work – that is of a personal nature. By some estimates, 55% of workers spend time at work sending and receiving personal email. Frankly, I think that number errors on the side of being entirely too low. I’d wager nearly everyone sends personal email at work. But the problem isn’t with people who are sending an occasional message as a reminder to pick up a quart of milk on the way home. The problem rests with those workers who participate in a virtual (no pun intended) social network, spending hours each day exchanging messages.

Then, of course, there’s the web browsing. Checking stock prices, playing games, shopping on line- the list is endless. In fact, 40% of office workers recently surveyed say they surf the web constantly. 40%! I suppose they do break for lunch :-). Really, though, isn’t that a little excessive? Apparently so, because 79% of the same group says that surfing the web affects their productivity. I think the other 21% surveyed must have mid-read the question.

So what can a company or manager do to slow this epidemic? Well, to start, establish a company policy. Limit personal web browsing to break times and lunch periods. Next, in the spirit of “You can’t expect if you don’t inspect”, let people know you’ll be paying close attention to how they are spending their time on the computer. And as far as personal email is concerned, let people know that an occasional message is OK, but excessive use will have consequences.

If you are fortunate enough to have an IT professional at hand, he or she should be able to help monitor activity. But be up-front. Let people know that you plan to track how email and the web are being used and you expect everyone to behave responsibly.

At the heart of this dilemma for those workers who abuse email and web browsing is the question "Why doesn’t this person have enough work to fill their day?" Most workers agree that they wouldn’t spend so much time on-line if they had more to do. Managers should take a close look and work load and head count formulas to make sure there’s an appropriate balance. All the time spent at the digital water cooler may be a sign of deeper flaws in the business.

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