Dynamist Blog

Whose Time Is It?

This WaPost article on Black Monday highlights a rarely remarked-on workplace transformation. As work moves from physical production to creative effort and personal interaction, employers are paying not for time but for output. With the boss's permission "work time" often encompasses personal activities, from chatting with colleagues to shopping online.

Postell Carter, a database manager for the New Israel Fund in the District, squeezes online shopping trips into his day in bits and pieces. "Generally every couple of hours I'll take a little break," he said, adding that he might go online to buy clothes for his kids or flowers for his wife. It rarely takes more than 10 minutes, he said.

He plans to start his Christmas shopping in earnest this week.

Carter said his boss is easygoing about online shopping, as employers increasingly are. Several major local companies said they are fine with employees doing personal errands on the job as long as they do not abuse the privilege.

"We actually think it's productive if they do it that way instead of running out to a suburban mall and stretching the one-hour lunch into two," said Bob Dobkin, a spokesman for Pepco, which has 2,500 employees in the area. "We do think it promotes a better employee relationship."

Workplace consultants say employers' attitudes about online shopping are evolving, generally in favor of giving more leeway to employees. Where many companies once blocked access to high-volume shopping sites, for example, they now use threshold software that simply limits an employee's time on such sites, said Susan Larson, vice president of global threat analysis and research for SurfControl, which makes filtering software for workplaces. Today, she said, companies are more worried about employees bringing viruses into an office network by shopping online than they are about reduced productivity.

One of the first books to examine how different employees draw the boundaries between work and home was sociologist Chris Nippert-Eng's fascinating Home and Work, which I wrote about in Forbes ASAP.

Blurring home and work can make work much more pleasant. But it can also make people feel like they're always at work. Social critics (and harried employees) who complain about the "overworked American" rarely consider how much personal time employees are consuming on the job.

Compared to service workers, manufacturing employees have far less flexibility on the job, because each has to integrate his or her production with everyone else's, and with an often-continuous flow of material. When I interviewed managers at American Leather for my NYT feature on the company, they noted that the American-born children of their immigrant factory employees rarely wanted to work in the plant and, when they did take jobs at American Leather, second-generation plant employees quit. Even when they have no white-collar options, they prefer lower-paid but less structured positions in retailing.

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