In a forthcoming paper in the Journal of Applied Psychology, Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile and her former doctoral student Andrew Brodsky, now a business professor at the University of Texas at Austin, make an attempt at measuring the economic impact of employee downtime in the US workforce. What they found surprised them: The time American workers spend idle could be costing employers $100 billion a year. Michael Blanding profiles their research at HBS Working Knowledge:
With the help of survey firm GfK, Brodsky and Amabile took a representative sample of people across 29 occupations—including lawyers, managers, agricultural workers, and soldiers. They found that 78 percent of employees reported experiencing some kind of idle time. Moreover, in every one of the 29 occupations, at least 50 percent of the GfK respondents experienced idle time.
Converting those hours into wages, the researchers conservatively estimated that such idle time costs businesses a whopping $100 billion a year.
By idle time, Amabile and Brodsky don’t mean loafing or procrastination, but rather time when employees should be working but are unable to, whether because of excess capacity, misallocation of work, or malfunctioning equipment. The researchers also examined how people respond to having nothing to do at work—not well, it turns out:
Cybersecurity has emerged as one of the most significant challenges of the digital workplace. Moreover, it is an issue over which organizations don’t always have full control, as it depends to such a great degree on employee behavior. New research from the University of Delaware’s John D’Arcy shows that employees’ moods can influence their cybersecurity habits, for better and for worse:
According to the survey, employees in better moods are more likely to have a positive attitude about security and are more likely to follow policy. “On the flip side, if they’re in a bad mood, what you get can change from day to day,” D’Arcy said. “That makes it more likely that they will violate policy.” …
The team also examined what might cause some of these mood changes in the workplace, and ironically, sometimes the cause of the employees’ bad moods was the security policy itself. The research team calls this a security policy “backfiring.”
“Sometimes if they’re dealing with security requirements that they think are too restrictive or are a hassle, that can have a negative impact,” D’Arcy said. “It’s like too much security puts employees in a negative mood, which then again makes them less likely to follow policy.”
This finding may seem ironic, but in fact it makes perfect sense, because there’s nothing employees find more frustrating than workplace policies that get in the way of them getting their work done.
HR has a big role to play in facing the mounting cybersecurity challenges all organizations face today, because good cybersecurity practices depend so heavily on employees’ choices and behaviors, such as how they protect their passwords and respond to suspicious emails. To this point, Maarten Van Horenbeeck argues at the Harvard Business Review that employees fail to take on good cybersecurity habits because the rules their employers give them are unnecessarily complicated:
One of the big reasons security rules often don’t work is because they are so complex they drive people to take shortcuts that defeat their purpose. For example, password policies are so complicated and inconvenient that most employees just ignore them. Employees are told to change passwords frequently, but researchers have found that when people are required to come up with new passwords every three months they tend to do things like merely capitalizing the first letter or adding a number on the end to save time. This makes passwords increasingly easier to crack. Being creative gets exhausting when you have to do it repeatedly, yet most companies force this on employees for the sake of security.
The headline finding of Dell’s End-User Security Survey, released last week, is that 72 percent of employees said they were willing to violate data security protocols and share confidential company information under certain circumstances, such as if a manager asked them to or if it would help them do their jobs more easily. Computerworld editor Matt Hamblen takes a closer look at the findings, which illustrate the fine line employees often walk between maximizing their productivity and safeguarding sensitive data:
Creating a security culture at a company can be complicated. The survey found that 65% of employees recognize their responsibility to protect confidential information, but many said security programs limit their productivity. Of those who received cybersecurity training at work, 24% admitted they went ahead and used unsafe behaviors anyway in order to complete a task. …
The survey found that unsafe behaviors for accessing, sharing and storing data are common in the workplace. Forty-six percent of employees admitted to connecting to public Wi-Fi to access confidential information, while 49% admitted to using a personal email account for work tasks. The survey found 35% said it was common to take corporate information with them when leaving a company.
One of the many interesting things we’ve found in our ongoing research into the development of organizational cultures is that employees often don’t engage in behaviors because there are underlying tradeoffs they must make in order to do so. In recognition of this, one company we’ve spoken to explicitly lays out the “dualities” associated with a desired behavior (in this case, efficiency vs. data security).
Stephan Aarstol has made a splash in the business world by running his company, Tower Paddle Boards, on a five-hour workday, where employees work from 8:00 to 1:00 with no lunch break, for a total of 25 hours per week. That’s obviously quite a bit less than the typical employee: Our Global Talent Monitor indicates that the average employee worldwide works 43 hours a week. Not only does a shorter workweek seem intuitively appealing for employees, but there is also some research indicating that employees who work a shorter week are more productive. This notion of a shorter, more productive workweek underpins Aarstol’s management philosophy as well as ongoing experiments with six-hour workdays in some European countries.
We’ve talked with companies about this idea, and the objection that keeps coming up is that managers just don’t see a way to get a shorter workday. At Talent Insider, Aarstol offers some brief insights into how his company made it work:
While some European employers have been experimenting with a shorter, six-hour workday, the notion seems unlikely to catch on in the US any time soon, even if these experiments prove successful. However, David McCann at CFO profiles one small California business whose CEO claims to be running his organization successfully on an even shorter, five-hour day:
One year ago today, during a year in which Tower Paddle Boards made the Inc. 500 list of the fastest-growing companies in America, it implemented a workday of just five hours. Think that’s a joke? It’s not. The company’s CEO and founder, Stephan Aarstol, states unequivocally that it’s been a productivity booster. He’s even written a book about the policy, “The Five-Hour Workday: Live Differently, Unlock Productivity, and Find Happiness,” a self-published effort scheduled to be released in July. …
The common workday of eight or nine hours “trains the work force to be lazy,” he says. “Time is like a sponge. If you have eight hours to do something, you take eight hours. But if you tell people to get the same amount of work done in five hours, they start working at a faster pace and find creative solutions to stuff.” …
Ludicrous Speed (Spaceballs/MGM)
In a recent article on what it calls “the creed of speed,” the Economist questions whether the pace of business in corporate America is truly accelerating, or if that’s just our perception. With Silicon Valley seeming to set the pace—by the new iPhones, apps, and gadgets that come out every year—it’s no wonder that all anyone can talk about is speed, speed, speed. Even in industries that have products, customers, and workforces nothing like Silicon Valley’s, speed seems to be the name of the game:
Like dorks in awe of the cool kids, the rest of America’s business establishment chastises itself for being too slow. If you ask the boss of any big American company what is changing his business, odds are he’ll say speed. Firms are born and die faster, it is widely claimed. Ideas move around the world more quickly. Supply chains bristle to the instant commands of big-data feeds. Customers’ grumbles on Facebook are met with real-time tweaks to products. Some firms are so fast that they can travel into the future: Amazon plans to do “anticipatory” shipping before orders are placed.
But the magazine also asks a question we have been investigating at CEB for quite some time: Is the corporate world really getting faster? And more importantly, what are the ramifications of what executives are doing to speed up their businesses? As the Economist writes:
America’s executives worry that they won’t keep up with this quickening world. Others worry about the things they may do in the attempt. Hyperactive bosses are accused of slashing jobs and overdosing on share buy-backs to hit quarterly earnings estimates. The unease goes beyond the activities of individual firms to those of the corporate sector as a whole. In his 2014 book, “The Impulse Society”, Paul Roberts, a social critic, decries a system “so hostile to the notion of long-term investment, or commitment, or permanence, that it is becoming incapable of producing anything of durable social or economic value.”
This impulsivity—the need for speed—is perhaps more destructive than going slow.