The Nation's Pulse

Slackers

They also serve who sit around and wait and chat and surf the Internet.

By 7.15.05

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In the 1990s, I worked as a freelance writer in-house at a major mutual fund company in Boston. Because I got paid a handsome hourly rate, if there was nothing for me to do, I either didn't come in or got dismissed early. I was surrounded by people with "writer" in their titles: "Senior Writer," "Associate Writer," etc. Most were in their twenties.

Here is how the workday of a typical male member of that department began. Appear at 9:00 a.m. with cup of coffee, sweet roll, and newspaper. Sit at desk, eat sweet roll, drink coffee. Retire to bathroom to sit on the throne, read newspaper -- thoroughly. Wash up thoughtfully at the sink. Return to cubicle, check phone messages. Return personal calls. Catch up on the latest from late night TV or the local club scene with fellow workers. Sigh. Look around. Start work.

America Online and Salary.com released the results of an on-line survey earlier this week that revealed that Americans wasted, on average, more than two hours a day a work. "The top time-wasting activity was personal Internet use," said a story in Monday's St. Louis Business Journal, "with 44.7 percent of the respondents indicating [it] was their top time waster. Socializing with co-workers was the second-biggest time waster, followed by conducting personal business at work, spacing out, and personal errands and phone calls, the companies said."

When I worked at the mutual fund company, almost nobody had the Internet. I can imagine what the corporate communications department looks like nowadays.

TIME-WASTING, ACCORDING TO an unintentionally hilarious sentence in the St. Louis Business Journal article, "costs employers $759 billion a year in salaries for which they receive no apparent benefit." Why do workers do it? And why do companies put up with it?

On the worker side, the survey cites "a sense of entitlement" and the feeling of not being paid enough. That doesn't answer the question. How much time do you have to waste at work before you feel like you're being paid enough? And if you're entitled to balance your checkbook at the office, does that also entitle you to plan a party? Plus, there's a chicken-and-egg aspect to it. You waste some time and feel guilty, so you develop a resentment against your employer instead. Or you come to count on work time for paying your bills, an activity you would cover up if a supervisor walked by, and you assuage your anxiety by feeling indignantly entitled.

I spent a year in an advertising agency where we worked very hard, especially hard on those four occasions a year when the company's nationwide sales force got together and we had to create displays, training programs, and media material for the meetings. The creative director, a good guy, asked me what I thought would be the best reward for people who had put in long extra hours.

"Time off," I said.

It was the one thing he couldn't do. The company didn't have the time to give. They could only take. And companies take a lot of people's time.

THAT'S WHY COMPANIES PUT UP with slothful behavior. A large corporation has to have lots of different people available to do lots of different things. Some of those people work constantly. At the mutual fund company, the compliance officer worked steadily, reading and vetting the advertising copy produced by some twenty putative writers. But how long does it take to write a single 150-word ad? Weeks, sometimes.

They also serve who only stand and wait. As a young man, I typed bills of lading at a trucking company. Two typists, a dispatcher, a bookkeeper, and an office manager sat around most of the day, playing penny hockey and shooting the breeze. Then about 4:30 the trucks started pulling into the depot and the bills of lading came through in reams. We typed like demons for an hour an a half or two hours, and then we were done. The drivers, obviously, worked every minute. We had to be there to support the trucks.

Indeed, the survey reveals precisely that. Among the most-often cited reasons for lazing around on the job one finds "not enough work to do."

Some of that simply grows from business structure. My old advertising mentor Tom Brigham, who ran a small agency, a tight ship, used to tell me he could figure on only 40 weeks of 40 hours worth of billings a year. The larger the business, the greater the waste. But it's true straight up and down the organization line. As a full-time freelance writer, I kept track of my hours for about two years in four categories: sales, bookkeeping, meetings, and tasks. I seldom put in more than 10 hours a week on tasks, actual writing and research. When I once landed a contract to write a computer training program and put in 40 hours or more on straight tasks for several weeks, it practically killed me.

IS THIS A GREAT COUNTRY? The survey means we have choice. The St. Louis Business Journal, for example, picked up on the story because Missouri led the nation in wasted time on the job. Among wasteful sectors, insurance and government led the pack. To that I would add education and public sector work. So if you want to waste time, you'll have lots of jobs to pick from, and you can select your region appropriately. Of course, if you want to work, you can do that, too, and probably get ahead and end up supervising a honeycomb full of drones arranging haircuts, talking to their kids on the phone, downloading computer games and music, or doing their taxes.

Just don't expect them to behave like you. The company doesn't.

Lawrence Henry writes every week from North Andover, Massachusetts.

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Lawrence Henry writes every week from North Andover, Massachusetts.