HR Management & Compliance

Are Employees Really Slacking Off More Now?

Remember when employee slacking meant long conversations at the water cooler and frequent smoke breaks? Those were simpler times. Some studies suggest that digital distractions offer a whole new, more time-consuming and effective method of slacking in the modern workplace. But how damaging are such behaviors? Should they be stamped out entirely or maybe even permitted?

Here to discuss the current stake of employee slacking is Julia Kanouse, CEO of Illinois Technology Association.

HR Daily Advisor: Has employee slacking increased recently? If so, why do you think that is?

Kanouse: I do think that employees are slacking off more at work than they have in the past. There are a couple of key reasons for that: 1) There is increased use of personal mobile devices at work. A recent study indicated that the average employee is spending about 5 hours a week on his or her cellphone at work on tasks that are not work-related. 2) Related to the increased use and prevalence of cell phones, employees are “always on” in a way they never have been before. Because employees are checking work e-mail on their phone at 9:00 p.m., they don’t feel quite as guilty checking personal e-mail at 2:00 in the afternoon.

HR Daily Advisor: How has employer views on slacking off in the office changed? Or have they?

Kanouse: I think most employers have accepted it as a part of doing business. For many of our members, the focus is on getting quality work done, but there isn’t much emphasis on where and when that work gets done. Many companies have implemented “core business hours” during which they expect employees to be at work, engaged, and available for meetings. But outside of those hours, if you are more of a night owl, you can do your work at midnight and come in at noon, for example.

HR Daily Advisor: Can you discuss how an “always on” work environment impacts employee productivity? Why do companies, especially tech companies, need to strike the right balance?

Kanouse: Burnout is a real thing. There are multiple studies that show that short breaks throughout the day actually allow you to be more productive. It’s important that companies help their employees understand the value of taking a “brain break” during the day and encourage employees to completely unplug when they are away from the office, possibly every night or at least a few evenings a week.

HR Daily Advisor: How would you suggest employers handle employees watching Netflix or looking at social media?

Kanouse: If employees are doing either of these things as part of a short “brain break,” I don’t think there is an issue. It’s their time to spend it as they’d like—a quick 5-minute check of their social account might be exactly what they need to dive back into a complex problem for the rest of the afternoon. As long as the quality (or quantity in some job functions) of work is strong and the activity doesn’t disrupt other employees, I don’t think employers need to regulate the activity. What employers should look out for is multitasking—watching Netflix all day while also trying to perform your job could result in more of an issue and lead to lower-quality work. Most recent research suggests that multitasking is near impossible.

HR Daily Advisor: Many would argue that it’s impossible to expect a human being to do the same task for 100% of his or her day, and even approaching that level would be massively harmful to everyone. Do you have any thoughts on that?

Kanouse: There are multiple studies that show that short breaks throughout the day actually allow you to be more productive. Ironically, by doing less, you might actually accomplish more. Physiologically, we are built to work this way. According to research from The Energy Project, humans move from full focus to fatigue every 90 minutes. Tony Schwartz, the founder, calls this “pulse and pause,” recommending that we take short breaks every 90 minutes to walk, drink water, and engage in other healthy activities.