Karen Walker, Grace’s squeaky voiced assistant in US sitcom Will and Grace, has a blatant approach to the art of doing nothing at work. Most of us are more covert in our tactics. Sly naps in a toilet cubicle on a painful hangover morning, internet ‘research’ that extends to the celebrity pages of your favourite online magazine, searching for your next holiday destination when you should be finding the perfect venue for your next corporate event and those epic shopping lists you meticulously construct when you should be writing up meeting minutes. (Of course I have never done any of the above. Ahem.)

Let’s face it, doing nothing (and disguising it as work) is a fine art that anyone working in an office learns to master very early on in their career. 

And last week statistics were released to prove it. Apparently junior council staff spend 68% of their time doing nothing remotely productive according to research by a management consultancy firm. It’s a shocking statistic. But I’m not exactly surprised. I doubt anyone who has ever worked in an office is. In fact I would argue that splashing out on expensive research was a complete waste of precious budget deficit reducing public funds.

Facebook, favourite blogs, TwittereBay, online shopping sprees… having a computer in front of you presents an irresistible world of temptation away from the mundane tasks of the day. It makes it so easy to be slack. And be discreet about it. Who’s to know when you’re tapping in your credit card details to pay for that fabulous new top, you’re not just updating your accounts spreadsheet with this month’s sales figures? (Not that I condone such sloppy behaviour. Or have ever done something so slack myself. Ahem.)

So, what can we do to address this despicable state of affairs?

The management consultant’s report blames managers for being uncomfortable confronting unproductive staff. So, do we need to be tougher? Maybe introduce more draconian internet security measures? Or Big Brother spying tactics? Yes, I suppose we could. But such blatant displays of the lack of trust in our workplaces will only augment the dismal dissatisfaction pay freezes, redundancies and brutal team restructurings have already inflicted. The answer has to be to look at staff motivation. Why do your team feel compelled to check Facebook every five minutes rather than do their job? How can management ignite enthusiasm and commitment in their teams? What can we do to inspire and motivate our teams when the promise of financial rewards is still out of the question?

Rather than pointing the finger of blame (and splurging on reports that provide a stick to beat our teams with), I think it’s finding these solutions that we should be investing in.

If you enjoyed this Afternoon Debate, you can join the conversation here.

Laura Jane Johnson is a freelance writer and communications specialist, with a specialist interest in employee communications. Contact her at [email protected].

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