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ALTOM: Is Pac-Man robbing your workers of productivity?

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Tim Altom

Google users found an unexpected bonus when they went to the Google search page in May, a limited-time feature that the blog RescueTime (blog.rescuetime.com) claims nearly devastated Western business all by itself.

Google’s surprise for its users was a fully featured, fully functioning copy of the early video game Pac-Man, complete with all characters and levels, playable right from the computer. It was in honor of the venerable game’s 30th anniversary.

I remember being introduced to Pac-Man in an old pizza parlor my family used to visit on Friday nights. Pac-Man was a big leap ahead from Pong, which the parlor had previously provided. Another popular video game, Asteroids, had appeared on the market just before Pac-Man, but it was only a shoot-’em-up game with no discernible story line.

At least Pac-Man had a story, as simplistic as it was. The point wasn’t merely to survive, as it was with Asteroids; it was to seize your own fate and pursue a strategic goal. Pac-Man became iconic in a way no previous game ever had. Its ghostly monsters, its dot-laden layout, and its unforgettable gobbling main character were instantly recognizable in everything from political cartoons to magazine illustrations. Pac-Man was the symbol of the electronic age, long before he was displaced by the personal computer.

So when Google users stumbled on the surprise gift from the giant search company, it was inevitable that in business offices everywhere, the long-forgotten sounds of Pac-Man would come to life again. And just as inevitably, killjoys had to weigh in with pronouncements of how bad for business this distraction was. RescueTime, for example, had a headline on its blog for May 24 that read, “The tragic cost of Google Pac-Man—4.82 million hours.”

RescueTime markets software that tracks employee usage habits, so it has a vested interest in finding woeful time-sinks. It found a whopper in Google’s Pac-Man. Based on its data, RescueTime concluded that Pac-Man had consumed 4.8 million hours of time nationwide. RescueTime further calculated that at a rate of $25 per hour, per user, the evil Pac-Man game had stripped the honest businessfolk of America of some $120 million—as much, so RescueTime says, as it would take to hire every employee of Google for six weeks.

I have to admit that I’m exaggerating for effect, as did RescueTime. Although RescueTime did cite the numbers I quote, they were provided with RescueTime’s tongue obviously lodged inches deep into its cheek. RescueTime doesn’t really believe Pac-Man’s appearance was actually tragic. For that matter, neither do I. Only sweatshop operations measure productivity by how many keystrokes per minute an employee turns out. When companies today monitor web traffic, it’s usually for legal or security purposes, not to cut employees off from the outside world.

Other observers haven’t been so reasonable about excusing cyberspace’s time thievery. Estimates of lost dollars have ranged from $600 million to nearly $800 billion, mostly to the time-wasters you’d expect: Facebook, online gambling, Twitter and the like. Nobody really knows how much money is theoretically siphoned from employers’ wallets, but it probably ranks up there with long lunches, banking runs, water-cooler conversation, and personal phone calls, all of which have become regular events in most companies today.

Indeed, put in perspective, online access is a smaller problem for businessfolk than the overlooked waste from poorly organized filing systems and bad software. Want to spiff up productivity? Focus on your most inefficient tools, not on Pac-Man. A half-day lost searching for an old document verges on the tragic.

Taking surf breaks can even be seen as encouraging brain-workers. Hiring the savviest and smartest people necessarily requires giving them a lot of slack time to recharge or change perspective. Brains need to be cooled and distracted, and the online world is a great place to do that. Intelligence needs room to roam. Smart people are curious people, and allowances must be made.

That doesn’t mean you should be paying people to wander the Web continuously, nor does it imply that you shouldn’t put policies in place to prevent abuse. But as long as work is getting done and nothing illegal is going on, why worry about mysterious beeps from cubicles? If you buy expensive blocker software, you can control what employees see, but likewise you can become the office ogre, and you could turn Internet access into a game where you block sites, they figure a way around you, and on and on. Such silliness fritters away more time than the original web waste.

Again, smart people are hard to control, so it’s often best to enjoy their work while winking at their break-time habits. Indeed, you can probably exert more control by joining in. Smart managers need breaks too.•

__________

Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at taltom@ibj.com.

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