Workplace Waste May Be More Useful Than You Think

Opinion: Surveys show people spend a huge amount of work time on activities defined as "waste," writes Ziff Davis Internet's Jeff Angus. But how wasted is a chat in the kitchen that clears up a bottleneck, or a key bit of informa

Too many managers are like my old co-worker Sergei.

He had successfully escaped the Soviet Union in the early 70s, worked hard, saved his money and bought his first car, an old beater Datsun 510 that was baboon-butt ugly.

Among other major drawbacks, it had a paint job pitted from being downwind from a DuPont chemical factory the first two years of its life. The car was in great operating condition, though; it was worth probably $1700.

Sergei loved that car for its utility, but mostly for its meta-meaning, its symbolism—it represented freedom and success.

He loved it so much, he put around $2,500 worth of electronic and mechanical security gear on it.

That excess is a prime symptom of what I call the Soviet Syndrome, a disease that affects way too many managers who have fixated on two ultimately unproductive ideas.

The first idea is that there can never be too much security on an important resource regardless of the benefit/cost ratio.

It made sense to Sergei—and makes sense to many control-addled managers—to install systems for security or supervision that cost significantly more than the value of the thing being secured.

The second idea is that if someone who reports to you does something you havent specifically assigned, that action is either a waste of time or a method of undermining departmental objectives.

Ill guess that about 15 percent of all managers share this dysfunctional mindset.

There arent many of them, but they can be expensive, especially if others dont push aside their addiction to overhead and supervision. But few higher-level managers, and even fewer employees, push back.

The most recent evidence of the existence of Soviet Syndrome in corporate America is a survey released a few weeks ago, by and America Online.

The study suggested U.S. personnel "waste" $759 billion a year in work time, basing that estimate on specific activities respondents acknowledged in themselves.

But "waste" is in the eye of the beholder. The list of time-wasters, for example, includes non-task internet surfing (45 percent of workers do this), and socializing with co-workers (23 percent).

People reported spending 2.1 hours a day on things that didnt qualify as being related to a specific tasks ("wasting time").

Depending on the individual, this could be a problem, a neutral characteristic, or even be a benefit.

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