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The tender issue of stealing time

It’s a big issue within any company. 

With easy access to Internet shopping, games, social networks and more, employees can find many ways to focus on personal issues while at work, detracting from productivity and demonstrating a disrespect for the time paid for by their employer.  In fact, if we were to be direct, we might label it “stealing time,” and consider it a crime of sorts.

But let us start this conversation by acknowledging that working from home especially in this new world we’re in, most employees don’t use a clock and certainly can and do interrupt their work with play, chores, family issues and shopping.   And that most make up for this by working at any hour of the day or night.  Self-driven, self-policing and effective employees.  But how about those at the office as we return to a more normal workweek – even with split home-office days?

Why should management worry?

Based upon the actual “loaded” cost of an employee per hour, stealing time is certainly not an insignificant cost for the employer.  Certainly, it amounts to many times the cost of stealing something tangible, such as a ream of paper from the supply cabinet.  Yet, many of us treat the latter much more severely than the former.

Consider some counter arguments. 

[Email readers, continue here…]   Attracting great employees often requires us to offer special incentives, including flexible hours, work from home even before and soon after the pandemic, unsupervised time off, and access to perks such as free food and soft drinks.  Often, employees just expect some degree of freedom when they work at the office, to be able to quickly shop or communicate with friends in the middle of their day.  In times past, older generations were perhaps more discrete when making personal phone calls (how ancient this sounds).  But they often did so anyway, and often spending more time and more company money in phone bills in those days than any cost for today’s typical employee distraction.

How about the counter to the counter argument? 

There is no way to sugar-coat the fact that paid time is for work, not for outside play.  The cost may seem small until someone calculates the combined cost over a year of time and screams “thief!”

Is there a middle ground or is this a universally expected perk?

As in all two-sided arguments, there usually is a middle ground. The boss who requires complete adherence to the work-every-minute ethic called for in the employee handbook generates ill will when enforcing the rule.  But the manager, who openly ignores the behavior, encourages more of it from employees who will fall in to follow the example they see openly acknowledged.

My solution in an in-the-office environment

Acknowledge the fact of life, equate it to personal time once used for personal calls, and define a ‘limit of acceptability’ publicly.  “We recognize how difficult and intense your work is.   We think it prudent for you to take breaks as often as every hour if you need them.  We expect your breaks to be self-policed and no longer than ten minutes, to be used for all personal issues including personal use of your workstation.  Remember not to stray out of bounds of corporate decency and confidentiality and be safe in protecting corporate security.”

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