Lost Productivity Has a Cost, but No One Knows Exactly How Much


Earlier this week I wrote about a survey that found lots of people copping to watching YouTube clips from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays when (presumably) many of them are at work. My take on it: This kind of time-wasting is pretty innocuous, unless minutes devoted to YouTube and other online diversions stretch into hours. After all, PCs are hardly the only distraction at work, and it's unrealistic for employers to expect their workers to toil like robots. (Unless, of course, they employ actual robots.)


I am not advocating letting employees fill their days with non-work activities. I know productivity can suffer when folks become more interested in Facebook than finance reports. Yet I've always been skeptical of surveys and studies that attempt to determine exactly how much productive time is squandered by, say, employees checking sports scores online. When Challenger, Gray & Christmas estimated companies experienced a whopping $3.8 billion in lost productivity during the month-long 2008 men's NCAA championship basketball tourney, a number of folks questioned its methodology.


An earlier estimate by Salary.com put the amount of productivity lost to employees' non-sanctioned Web surfing at $759 billion a year. More scary numbers from Tom Pisello, who calls himself the ROI Guy, and from the National Association of Professional Organizers: Pisello estimates organizations lose some $1,250 per user in productivity each year due to time spent on reading and deleting spam. Another $1,800 per user is lost reading and sometimes responding to unnecessary e-mails from coworkers. And $2,100 to $4,100 a year per user is wasted due to dealing with poorly written communications. According to the association, a company with 1,000 knowledge workers loses up to $48,000 a week due to the employees' inability to find and retrieve needed information from their messy desks.


When I submitted information about the number of employees here at IT Business Edge and the nature of our work, this online calculator from the management consultants at Basex quickly told me to expect $269,250 to $376,950 a year in lost productivity. A free Basex whitepaper (registration required) puts annual productivity loss at $588 billion, a staggering figure to be sure, but one that's a little more than $170 billion less than the one tallied by Salary.com.


As seen from these examples, it's obviously tough to put a value on lost productivity. But I think everyone relates to the problem of interruptions at work. It can be pretty stressful, whether the interruptions are of our own making or due to events out of our control, whether they are related directly to work or not.


The Basex paper offers some interesting ideas. For instance, IBM offers what it calls ThinkFridays, a time free of non-essential meetings and interruptions when employees are encouraged to tackle projects that require lots of focus. Similarly, Dow Corning bars non-essential meetings for one week each quarter. Of course, as the paper notes, this begs the question of what constitutes a "non-essential meeting."


The paper also offers specific suggestions related to e-mail, instant messaging and general communication. A couple of my favorites from the e-mail list: I will read my own e-mails before sending to make sure they are comprehensible to others. I will not overburden others with unnecessary messages, including one-word messages such as "Thanks!" or "Great!" I will use "reply to all" only when absolutely necessary.


I found some other time-management tips worth sharing in a short trip through our site archives. Here is some food for thought on instant messaging and on e-mail. (The latter includes some more of those jaw-dropping estimates of time lost to poor management of e-mail.)