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Oct 29 2009

Going to the toilet puts UK economy down the toilet

  • Watercooler conversations undermine UK plc
  • Crosswords and Sudoko waste UK businesses £2bn a year

These are just made-up headline, of course, but I expect if you commissioned a survey into the time individuals spend not working, but chatting with their mates, reading personal emails, etc, etc, you would soon come up with some tasty headlines to support your cause. Instead…

  • Twitter ‘costs businesses £1.4bn’ (BBC)
  • Twittering workers cost business £1.4bn (FT)
  • Twitter ‘costs British economy £1.38bn’ (Telegraph)

These were a few of the headlines shouting at me from my RSS feed-reader on Monday, and I also noticed the content of the articles provided convenient ammunition for more than one sceptical member of the audience at the RIBA in London (post – I spoke to one man from a well-known multi-disciplinary design consultancy who plainly didn’t believe that social media should be available in the workplace).

The news stories are based on a survey by yet another IT services group, this time Morse (see their news release), who surveyed 1460 office workers, of whom over half (57%) said that they used social networking sites during the working day for personal use. On average those people were spending 40 minutes on these sites each week (tellingly, none of the reports broke this down to eight minutes a weekday). Some reports (eg: the FT) went so far as to suggest that this equated to  ‘just under a full working week being “wasted” each year’, and most quoted Morse consultant Philip Wicks’ emotive talk of a “productivity black hole”.

The desired reaction is plainly to get more organisations restricting Twitter and Facebook in the workplace (see my recent post Why social media bans won’t work about the Portsmouth City Council example, and ‘Over half of US workplaces block social networks’) – and thereby, of course, create more demand for IT services companies like Morse.

IT companies feeding on corporate paranoia

This is an argument recently put forward by Michael Neubarth in an article Social Media in the Workplace: Boon or Bane?, where he takes a detailed look at several such surveys. Neubarth points out that “research studies in general should be viewed with a healthy dose of skepticism“, quoting analyst David Linthicum who suggests vendors who pay for research generally expect such surveys to “come up with the findings they are looking for“.

To be fair, the Morse survey does make some good points. For example, it says organisations need to provide more specific guidelines and usage policies regarding Twitter (agreed); “social networking can be a cause for good when it is used professionally” (Telegraph); and some reports pick up on Morse’s detailed observations regarding URL shorteners as a potential security hole.

However, I wonder if Morse (or its survey company TNS) asked questions about how and when people accessed these social networks. If they are accessing Twitter or Facebook in their own time (during their shrinking lunchtimes – as eConsultancy points out – during tea-breaks or – ahem – comfort breaks, etc) and using their own mobile devices, then where’s the problem? And the quoted examples of incidents at Curry’s, PC World, etc, will not be prevented by workplace bans – disaffected workers will simply wait until they get home before abusing customers (and perhaps also their ‘Big Brother’ managers and their evil partners in the IT department).

What about the other time sinks?

Is such a controlling approach recommended for other office worker habits? The Daily Telegraph report quoted Wicks:

“It is the sort of thing people constantly use which means that its not quite the same as doing a crossword, where you spend half an hour on it and it is finished.”

Sorry, so spending 30 minutes on a crossword is OK but eight minutes on Twitter isn’t?! Where are the demands to manage those answering personal emails or taking personal calls during company time? What about chatting with colleagues by the water cooler or coffee machine, or popping out for a cigarette?

Accentuate the positives

Thankfully, some publication offered some alternative perspectives. For those who ‘chill out’ by a quick dip into social media: “allowing people a few minutes of relaxing downtime might actually enhance their overall productivity” said the Guardian‘s Media Monkey, while recruitment firm Office Angels MD David Chubb told the Telegraph:

“As younger generations join the workplace, I believe UK businesses will, inevitably, have to embrace social networks, recognising the benefits of providing staff with well deserved downtime, but also their potential for business networking.”

This point was also made at the end of Jacqui Bowser’s article in Brand Republic: “The study did not take into account the positive effects of social networking use for UK businesses”, and by Charles Arthur in today’s Guardian.

On this point, for example, even in the deeply conservative world of commercial architecture, anyone who saw Su Butcher present at RIBAforum09 on Tuesday must have realised that social networking can deliver some powerful business benefits:

  • identifying business opportunities, sales leads
  • getting the latest industry news
  • crowdsourcing ideas
  • getting early warning of what people are saying about you, your company, your project
  • opening new relationships with other industry professionals
  • driving traffic to your website
  • etc

(Suw Charman-Anderson made very similar points too). Meanwhile, have a look at Su’s presentation:

Finally, I am lucky in that I work as a freelance consultant and so have none of the constraints that come from working within a larger organisation with ‘issues’ about social media availability. Being small and agile could well be to my advantage. And former BBC executive Euan Semple agrees:

On a daily basis I am reminded just how constrained people still working in corporate environments are compared to what is possible, and indeed easy and cheap, for me as a freelancer. This is not only in terms of technology but also in terms of use of time and productivity.

It is madness that we burden the clever people in our organisations in these ways and the bigger the organisation the worse it gets!

2 comments

6 pings

  1. kingspanvantage

    Perhaps a study into the time wasted on pleasantries might be an idea too?

    I can’t imagine how much time is wasted in a business by people saying hello, how are you, how’s your kids, what did you get up to this weekend.

    So next time I answer my phone, I’m going to remain silent, saying hello wastes half a second. I took twenty-three calls yesterday, that’s a total of eleven and a half seconds. I obviously need to add goodbye to my list of ‘wasteful’ words. That’s twenty-three seconds in total (a day!). How long does the ‘how are you bits’ last? hmmm… What about the bit when the caller say “is that XXXXX?” don’t they know it’s me, they rang my number. Oh what a waste.

    I should also add sales calls too.

    Doing a quick bit of maths in my head, I estimate that I must ‘waste’ at least forty minutes a day on pleasantries and unproductive sales calls. Perhaps they should block all incoming and outgoing calls to and from my phone.

    Imagine the headlines when the media discovers the negative impact on business of the phone.

    Networking of any type; be it via voice, electronic or even good ol’ fashioned written letters (when they get delivered) is all of value, and yes, there are some that will abuse the tools that an employer provides, but on the whole, we want to do our jobs and contribute to the business.

    Let good managers weed out the abusers not a Draconian IT policy.

  2. Mel Starrs

    I suspect more energy is invested in “breaking” IT lockdowns than is ever lost in productivity.

    The trust issue is something which may come back to bite over zealous IT departments and companies. If you give signals that staff aren’t to be trusted, where will their loyalties lie, especially in times of crisis? Short sighted foolishness…

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