When I used to work at a gaming magazine, I remember getting in trouble for playing World of Warcraft at work. The actual reason I got in trouble wasn’t that I was playing WoW - it was that my desk was at a corner that was completely visible to anyone walking into the office, including but not limited to the publishers that were, apparently, not pleased I was dicking around at work.
The irony is that I was easily the fastest producer at the magazine - my work was clean on time, and if there was work to be done, I would be doing the work so that I could get back to not doing work. However, the optics - understandably - made it seem that I was some 19-year-old dickhead playing my magical elf game instead of making Future Publishing money by writing about another kind of magical elf game.
It was frustrating because the “reward” for my work being done on time - if not early! - was that I had to appear still busy otherwise I’d cause my editor headaches when the publishers (I still have no idea what any of them did other than cut budgets) would notice that I was playing a computer game at my job at the computer game magazine. I theoretically could have gone to my editor and said, “I have no work, give me more work” (which I regularly did!), but I decided to take a 45-minute break to play a game.
Research shows that workers drift from their contracted tasks to personal email, social networks and the far corners of the internet for anything between a few hours a week to a few hours a day. Six out of 10 people admit they can’t get through the workday without checking their social media, according to online learning firm Udemy, while two-thirds of us say Facebook is the biggest time-sink. This phenomenon – known as cyberloafing – is an issue that costs businesses $85bn a year through lost time, according to researchers at the University of Nevada.
I want to be extremely transparent with you: I do not think I have worked a contiguous 8 hours in many, many years. I would also add that I do not believe I know anyone who has done so, and I would wager that the person writing the article I’m quoting, the psychologist quoted in the article, and the people that did the research behind the article have also not done so.
This isn’t an indictment of anyone at all, but an understanding of how human focus works - which is why I asked the talented Dr. Benjamin Wolfe (who I’ve spoken to before), an expert in practically understanding human perception:
There's an entire area of research that looks at this - it's the study of vigilance effects. Dates back to the 1940s and 1950s….and the classic example is "you're the poor bastard monitoring a radar screen in the 1940s, looking for blips... how long until you start sucking at it?"
So, the grounded-in-data answer to part of your question is that if you're just having someone do one task (like looking for radar blips, or watching bags on the scanner at the airport), their abilities start to go downhill after 20-30 minutes of sustained attention. We're not good at long-duration vigilance tasks, particularly when we look for rare items. How much they can focus *if they can take breaks* is a different question, because then you have to think about the periods of work vs break (and what they're doing while they work, and if that's one task or they're bouncing between tasks - like writing a document, but also keeping an eye on email and slack).
My intuition there is that the answer is somewhere between "a few hours, broken up with regular breaks" and "if anyone thinks that workers can, should or do work productively for eight nominal hours totally uninterrupted, they are insane.
Dr. Benjamin Wolfe, Assistant Professor in Psychology at the University of Toronto, and a co-director of the Applied Perception and Psychophysics Laboratory, which specializes in applying vision science methods like eye tracking to real-world problems.
This malevolent, reality-defying term suggests that any moment in which we are not fully dedicated to whatever the task is at hand - even if said task will be done on time and to a high quality - we are “wasting company time.” The BBC cites a study from the Information & Management Journal claiming that it loses companies $85 billion a year - a stat that I found so fascinating that I went and read the paper. And you’ll be shocked to hear that the use of this statistic is extremely flawed:
Cyberloafing (using Internet access for personal purposes during work hours) is a prevalent and pressing issue . Over 60% of workers surf the web at least once a day for personal reasons, according to Cyber Protect . And a Websense  survey found that employees admitted spending 1.5 h per week visiting non-work-related web sites in the office. In contrast, HR managers reported that workers spend 8.3 h accessing non-work web sites each week. Websense estimated that Internet misuse costs American corporations more than US$ 85 billion annually in lost productivity.
To be clear, Websense is a company now owned by Forcepoint, a workplace surveillance software company, and this data is not academic in the slightest. The study, which is from 2002, appears to be based entirely on Websense’s intuition - the single article I could find about it (the original Websense from the study is long-dead) doesn’t seem to cite any actual research or data, just that Websense said something and it’s true.
This broken statistic used to attack workers and justify installing workplace surveillance software has been cited by the Wall Street Journal, the BBC, and an alarming amount of different academic studies with no regard for whether the data is remotely backed by anything. And because the University of Nevada - who should be deeply ashamed! - put it inside an academic paper, they have been doing pre-sales for workplace surveillance software for over a decade, which is ironic considering the paper specifically says that surveillance erodes trust.
And, I repeat, this is a study from 2002, before Facebook, before Zoom, before any of the things that the actual article is about. And a mere three years later, it would appear that it was now costing businesses a remarkable $178 billion a year, a statistic that appears to have been derived from the fuzziest math possible:
The San Diego-based Internet management company reported that 50 percent of the surveyed workers admitted to using the Internet for personal purposes at work. Therefore, about 34 million of the 68 million total U.S. employees who use the Internet at work are surfing the Web recreationally on company time, making Internet usage one of the biggest threats to employee productivity.
It’s also strange that these articles fail to include an actual theft happening at the office - wage theft, which involves companies illegally taking billions of dollars from workers’ pockets. I’m sure it’s just a simple mistake that every outlet is making.
I realize that I have now spent a lot of time going on about this, but I am sick and tired of the lack of research that goes into supposedly journalistic articles. I am one guy running a PR firm who writes a newsletter when he feels like it, and I appear to have been the only person who cited this statistic that went and found the actual paper. Doing so took me a few minutes (I asked a friend who has access to ScienceDirect), and finding the citation took me 15 seconds using “preview,” a free app that comes with every Mac.
In fact, if I wanted to be lazy and pick a few studies to prove a point without reading the actual paper, I could also use a study that suggested that cyberloafing doesn’t actually matter at all to academic study, and another that suggests it isn’t counterproductive.
In any case, who cares.
Can you imagine a single CEO that you’ve seen in a business magazine that actually works eight hours a day? Do you think Elon Musk, a man who loves to get in trouble because he went on the computer and got upset, is spending 8 hours doing work? And do you, person reading this article, actually do eight hours of work? Or is it more like six? Or five? Or three? Or two hours and 23 minutes? While I am sure that there are people that have to work more than 8 hours a day - lawyers, for example - I do not believe one can be focused an active in one’s work for that entire period of time.
Cyberloafing as a term comes from a lack of humanity, and a lack of awareness of actual work. It is created and bandied about by middle managers and other people who, because they don’t do any real work, can only imagine productivity in an abstract way based on what they think it resembles. If anything, the poisonous accusatory nature of “cyberloafing” is the product of the lazy, worthless goons that are the actual barnacles on an organization - the people that want to be handing off work to others or criticizing them for “not being busy” as they file their eighth agenda for a meeting where they report other people’s achievements.
Thematically, the BBC should be ashamed that they published this article, and especially this part:
By 1600, he’s typically done for the day. “I’ve completely mentally checked out,” says Edward, whose surname is being withheld for job-security concerns. “Now, I’m just turning my focus to other things and putting myself before work.”
That doesn’t mean Edward is failing at his job or ignoring work; he does whatever his manager needs and, because he always replies to emails and attends scheduled calls, he’s never seen to be late. Rather, he’s decided simply to coast along, on a comfortable salary and in a remote set-up that suits his work-life balance. “Work has been getting on my nerves for a while,” he adds. “So, I’ve been happy to just collect the pay cheque.”
If you are a worm - a cretinous little monster that loves to eat dirt - you will read this and think that Edward is lazy, or disengaged due to some sort of millennial malaise that means he wants to eat avocado toast and read “The Facebook.” If you are a human being, you will see a productive worker that is rewarded for doing his work by being able to dick around, as he does not have more work to do.
The reason I am specifically focusing on this article is that I believe the next wave of anti-remote propaganda is going to be focused on treating people that do all of their work and then relax as loathsome thieves [emphasis mine]:
Since Covid-19, employees have quit en masse and sought pandemic-era perks at different companies. In the shake-up, some have switched into careers that align more with their values or offer better pay. But there’s also a subset of the workforce content to just get by without doing much work. Often working remotely without the watchful eyes of bosses, these employees are now putting in 30-hour workweeks on a 40-hour salary. Data suggests the pandemic has made such coasting widespread: a recent survey of 11,000 US workers found 39% were doing it, while a January 2022 study by US analytics firm Gallup shows half of employees say they’re neither engaged nor disengaged at work.
I am going to scream.
A job is a thing you do that is an exchange of your labor (and by extension the time it takes for you to produce that labor) for money. The suggestion that people are “content” “just getting by” at their jobs is protestant work ethic bullshit - there is no morality in having a job, and absolutely no morality in working hard - you are not a better person if you make more money, you are not a better person if you work longer hours, and you are certainly not a better person if you work 40 hours for the sake of working 40 hours.
The idea of “coasting” at work is one that exists to empower bosses to extract free labor from workers by promising them that their loyalty will be rewarded, a thing that rarely comes to pass. It’s an idea pushed by worthless managers and bosses that are frustrated that workers are not doing extra work for no extra compensation or reward. The BBC article - after spending hundreds of words trying to define coasting as “doing all of your work but not doing it in exactly 40 hours” - attempts to course-correct by suggesting that perhaps if we want more work out of our workers, we should incentivize them for doing so:
Edward began coasting after feeling undermined by his boss. “A project I was managing was scrapped without warning,” he explains. “It was something I was proud to work on – it felt like a great career opportunity. I tried to keep my motivation up, but it made me think what I was doing was pointless and a waste of time. I’d say half of the team were already slacking, so I decided to join the gang.”
While engaged employees are highly enthusiastic about their work, and disengaged workers actively pull against their organisation, coasters lie somewhere in between. “Not engaged employees [like coasters] are psychologically unattached to their work and company,” explains Ben Wigert, director of research and strategy for workplace management at Gallup, based in Nebraska, US. “Because their engagement needs are not being fully met, they put their time, but not energy or passion, into their work.”
What this article should’ve been called is “self-involved and ignorant managers and bosses are lucky enough to have workers that actually do their jobs despite their managers and bosses not doing theirs,” but I suppose that might not have worked for SEO reasons.
But don’t worry, this is still the worker’s fault:
Yet doing the bare minimum at work, without expending any more emotional or mental energy than required, can come at a cost. “If you spend most of your day doing things you don’t really enjoy doing, that’s not a great long-term strategy,” says Bolino. Studies have long shown that feeling valued at work is linked to wellbeing and performance; therefore, coasting and a lack of engagement imply a psychological hit. “You ultimately can’t separate wellbeing from your career,” says Wigert. “We find career wellbeing is actually the factor that most strongly affects overall personal wellbeing.”
The specific words I’m angry at here are “bare minimum,” because it would appear that Edward is doing about as much as he has to, and doesn’t appear to be told what the bare minimum is:
Edward believes his lack of effort has, so far, gone unnoticed. “In sales, it’s quite hard to tell how much work someone is putting in, so I’m kind of just riding off the work I put in previously,” he says. “Who knows if anyone is paying enough attention to realise I haven’t brought in anything new in for a while? My boss hasn’t even got ‘round to setting me targets.”
To be clear, Edward is in sales. The only person doing the bare minimum here is his boss, as the bare minimum for a boss in sales is to set the sales targets for your salespeople. This article, in an attempt to show a “coasting” employee, appears to have identified the actual coasters of the business world - the bosses that these articles are written for.
I don’t know about you, but I do my job so that I’m paid money to pay for stuff that I actually enjoy. This isn’t to say that my job isn’t enjoyable, or that I’m not good at it, but if I was not paid to do it I would do something else. When I do not have any work to do, or I know that the work will be done in time and I have a break, I like to stop and play a game, or read something, or write a newsletter, or do something that I like to do. My job is inherently exploratory - I have to find ways to pitch clients, which involves reading different things and consuming different information, much of which isn’t specifically relevant to any given client.
On top of that, sometimes I need a break, because doing stuff takes energy. There are days when I am more enterprising - where I am more energetic, where I may send an extra pitch, find an extra angle, go that extra mile, but the days when I am not doing this are not me “coasting,” but being a human being like everybody else.
This doesn’t mean that I am not focused or great at my job - it just means that I do not need to work exactly eight hours a day to do everything I need to do.
I think that a part of this is that I do not consider my career to be my identity. I do not spend my life thinking about public relations. I do not talk to my wife, or my son, or my friends about public relations. I am confident that the majority of people that I know do not really know what I do, and that’s fine - because I am not a Public Relations Person, I am Ed Zitron.
While this may seem like (and is) navel-gazing, it’s also a core point I want to make: the societal pressure to make your career your identity is something that exists to empower your boss by making your life about making them rich. I’m not saying you shouldn’t work hard at work if you want to, or indeed that you shouldn’t do so with the reasonable goal of making more money - but that you should not “become” your job. The only people that benefit from your entire life being consumed by work are those who have monetized you - and those working under you will find it deeply unsettling if you expect them to do the same.
And that’s the ultimate problem here - the idea of “cyberloafing” suggests that every workplace is a perfect system that some deviant workers have found a way to exploit. The reality is that bosses have got used to finding ways to guilt or antagonize workers into doing more, all while becoming increasingly distanced from the actual work product, meaning that they have no frame of reference to understand what a worker could or should be doing. They’ve also got used to providing absolutely no extra resources or help for workers, all while demanding more from them.
As a result they use - as I’ve remarked upon time and time again - whatever signifiers most resemble the foreign concept of “work” to judge whether someone is “working hard,” which usually means whether they can see the person and whether that person seems busy when they see them.
To conclude, I’ll leave you with a quote from my conversation with Dr. Wolfe:
Tell your employees what you expect and be clear about it, and treat them like autonomous adults, and you'll be fine. Treat them like serfs, and they have no loyalty, because your employees aren't serfs who are bound to the land and the boss isn't their feudal lord…and to go back to the cyberloafing shit, even under the threat of pain or injury, I'd argue it would be impossible to actually eliminate cyberloafing - which isn't a problem anyway - because people inherently need breaks to let them be productive when they are working.