PCs at first glance may seem like the ultimate productivity enhancer.
They let you plan and budget far more effectively than a calculator or table. They make it possible to keep track of people and things far more easily than a roster or list. They help you communicate far more efficiently than a typewriter or telephone. They can tap far more research sources than the largest collection of periodicals or books. And they make training far more compelling than words and pictures on paper.
But studies over the years haven't praised PCs as effusively as the marketing materials of PC manufacturers.
According to one recent study, by America Online and Salary.com, the number one reason for wasting time at work is the Internet. The 10,000 workers polled admitted to wasting an average of more than two hours during each eight-hour workday, not counting lunch and breaks. Employers expect there to be some downtime, but this was about twice as much as employers expected.
The biggest distraction for respondents was personal Internet use, with 44.7 percent of workers citing Web surfing as their biggest distraction. The next biggest distraction was socializing with co-workers. Other distractions included conducting personal business, running errands, and making personal phone calls.
Other interesting findings of the study: The younger people are, the more time they waste at work. The three sectors of the economy in which workers wasted the most time were, in order, insurance, government, and education.
According to Salary.com, employees reported some novel ways they wasted time while trying to avoid detection, such as walking hurriedly around the office to look busy (good cardio exercise) and staring blankly at their computer screens.
Another study, by Market Facts for the news site MSNBC.com, found that employees spend more time browsing the Web for news during the workday than they do reading periodicals or newspapers or consuming other media. Fully 35 percent of respondents said they use the Internet for news and information at work. In contrast, 25 percent read newspapers, 21 percent browse journals and magazines, 17 percent listen to the radio, and 6 percent get their at-work news from television.
Unquestionably, some, perhaps most, of this time benefits the bottom line by keeping people up to date, aware of key trends and competitors' moves.
And the flip side is that information technology, including the Internet, leads to employees doing more work at home, which often exceeds their Internet use at work for non-work purposes. One study, from the University of Maryland, found that workers with Internet access at home and at work used an average of 3.7 hours per week of work time for personal Internet use and 5.9 hours per week on the Internet for work purposes outside office hours.
Still, there's unquestionably room for greater efficiency in the way we use information technology tools in the workplace.
Employers should establish rational policies governing appropriate uses for e-mail and the Web. Guidelines are usually more effective in the long term than prohibitions, including the use of programs that block verboten Web sites.
E-mail makes it easy to stay in the loop, but wading through scores of nonessential messages a day is a time sink. Think through whether it's more efficient, with any given communication, to use e-mail, instant messaging, videoconferencing, the phone, stopping by someone's desk, the mail, overnight delivery, an airplane, or any other means, whether high-tech or old-school.
The Web can be an invaluable informational resource, but the temptation is great to jump from one site to another, each in turn less relevant to your work needs, not to mention using the Web to shop, check out sports scores, and engage in chitchat. Any time you surf, try to keep your purpose for surfing near the top of your mind.
Much loss of productivity results not from using information technology for fun by failing to use all of its potential. Whether it's an office suite program such a word processor or spreadsheet or an Internet service such as e-mail or the Web, often people don't take full advantage of it because they don't know how. Make sure that all those who need it, including top management, receive enough training to be efficient at the keyboard.
Technology, including information technology, is just a tool, as the word suggests. It's how we use it that matters most. Despite their ever-increasing sophistication, PCs ultimately are just dumb machines, adding and subtracting zeros and ones, so it falls to us to be smart in managing them.
Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or http://www.netaxs.com/~reidgold/column.