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RETURN ON TECHNOLOGY: Go ahead, let your employees work and play online

July 7, 2008

On June 18, CNN (www.cnn.com) had a story about a study in

CyberPsychology and Behavior Journal

(www.liebertpub.com) that examined how people use the Internet for personal use at work. It was supposed to be eye-opening, but it wasn't to me.

The study showed that managers who fret and make rules about Internet use by employees are probably using it themselves for the same purposes. Of course, no manager would ever let himself be seduced into wasting company time, would he?

But is it wasting time? That's the key issue. To answer that, we need some historical perspective. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors had no distinction between work, play and maintenance. You got up in the morning, and did whatever needed doing, or you did nothing, depending on need. No clock, no project plan. All of life blended together in one stream.

The Industrial Revolution changed that by establishing separate hours and places for work, and others for everything else. Work became its own enclosed bubble, where nothing from the outside was supposed to intrude. When I worked in a factory years ago, we couldn't be contacted directly by phone. A guard answered the phone, transferred to our supervisors, and the supervisors contacted us, if and when they felt like it. (Today, cell phones may have changed that, but I doubt it.) They wanted us to themselves, doing their bidding eight hours per day. It was demeaning and demoralizing, and it was a major reason for my movement up and out by getting an education.

The human longs to fuse his life into one whole experience, not fragment it into enclosed spaces. We talk about our families at work, and many of us like to talk about our work at home. The outside world always seeps into the workplace through a dozen cracks.

Old movies would have us believe that a husband called at work by his wife would be embarrassed and hiss into the phone, "Honey, I'm at work!" as if that alone would drive her back to the isolated little box he thinks of as "home." In reality, few husbands ever did that. Calls from home are often welcome breaks, and not many husbands would prefer to remain ignorant about an important event at home. Nowadays, it may be an e-mail that comes to him, or his family may have a blog. Keeping in touch with home base, or with friends, contributes to the richness of life and keeps an employee more content.

We need to re-examine the premise that an employee's worth is tied to the count of minutes she spends doing what we believe is "work." I know I'm swimming against a strong current here. The old paradigm is so pervasive we think of it as natural law. But employees are not interchangeable parts. They are humans who benefit from leadership. Successful companies have leaders, not clock-watching nitpickers.

When an employee's life merges work and home, it's not a bad thing. Good employees don't step through a portal on the way out of your office, shedding you and the company with it entirely at the end of the day. They mentally take it home with them. They think about the customer who's still waiting for product, the account they haven't closed, or the design they haven't gotten quite right yet. And that's how it should be if you like what you do for a living. It shouldn't be obsessive, but it should be flitting around your mind. If you don't feel that way, I'd suggest you find something that does it to you.

Nor do I think personal intrusion into the workplace is a bad thing. The human is built to weave a life from all the threads he has, and work should be just another thread in the tapestry. Naturally, anything can be overdone, and an employee who spends most of the working day lollygagging isn't tolerable. But you know who those people are, and it's not answering e-mails that will get them fired. It's nonperformance. Performance, after all, is what matters.

There's an apocryphal story about a man who toured Henry Ford's headquarters and found a man with his feet up on his desk. He asked Ford about it, and Ford allegedly said, "That man saved me a million dollars once. As far as I'm concerned, he can keep his feet up there forever."

That doesn't sound like Henry, but the principle is sound. You know when things are smooth, work is getting done, and customers are happy. Leadership sets goals and rewards progress toward them. It doesn't have to dictate. Relax, and let work and home mingle as it will.



Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. Listen to his column via podcast at www.ibj.comor read his blog at usabilitynome.blogspot.com. He can be reached at timaltom@sbcglobal.net.
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