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From The Desk Of Drumlin S Boulder

The headline in the Globe's business section screamed "25 Billion Dollars In Lost Productivity Due To Employee Shirking". It seems Shortleash VRS Inc, which sells something called "human resources reporting systems", claims that between 30 and 40 percent of a company's internet traffic is unrelated to their business, and that employees who play computer games, send and answer personal email, surf the web, visit other cubicles coffee in hand, read recreational material, and stare out the window, cost companies about $5,000 per year in lost output.

That is an amazing number, and it immediately set me to wondering. General Motors, Bell Canada, all the banks; they all employ tens of thousands of people. This means that, say the Royal Bank, with 57,745 employees, could make an additional $288 million dollars, while Bell Canada, with 61,739 employees could make an additional $309 million. All they had to do was deploy Shortleash's  VRS.

I set out to find out more because, as a shareholder of those corporations, I was certainly interested in having them add to their bottom line. Plus the majority of our people use computers, and with 36 people all together (not counting me) who might be goofing off, Shortleash could potentially put another $180,000 per year into our pockets. Well actually less after the Federal and Provincial governments take their share of the savings, and of course we have a profit sharing plan, so my personal take is far less. Yet as much as I hate to see the government share in the results of my hard work and productivity gains, I thought it was well worth the research time to add these kinds of dollars to our bottom line.

I started my research by googling Shortleash, but I got a bit sidetracked by such entries as the free dictionary, a Youtube video and a rock band's website. By then it was time to refill my coffee, which of course I could not do without chatting on the way with Gloria and Slide Rule. Eventually though, I did find what I was looking for. 

First off, their web site called their program a "virtual restraint system", which explains the VRS. The software not only recorded what employees did on their computers and when they did it, it also served up only what they needed to do their jobs. And to prevent the no purpose other than to chat office walkabout, employees had to electronically sign in and out of their offices, and record the purpose of their trip. The software maker boasted it had 134 time codes, 104 of which described non productive activities, and that it used a graphic of an office and an office desk as its main screen. They said this made it user friendly. I like simple so I immediately figured allocating time to MP&GFA was far better than 104 names for it, but the thirty remaining codes made some sense in that they were KPI and Scorecard based

User friendly and smarter than the average bear or not, this VRS seemed a bit excessive to me, and not so friendly to the user.

I've always looked on the MP&GFA walkabout as a means to unofficially exchange information, and the odd joke here and there, the office gossip, and the bonding that took place helped create and foster the culture of the place. And a MP&GFA walkabout with coffee in hand only added to their caffeine intake. And isn't caffeine a stimulant? And heck, if employees had to stay in their cubicles all day and only come out for business reasons, I would never have heard of the joke about the new salesman who sold several fish hooks, fishing equipment, a new fishing boat, and a new 4X4 to a guy would only came in to buy.... well never mind.

I even look upon some personal computer use as beneficial. Using a computer to, for example, book a vacation is much more efficient than using the yellow pages and the telephone to research and book a flight, hotel and car for their trips. They're going to do it anyways, so might as well let them do it quickly and more efficiently.

So I dug into their white paper study a bit more. What I found was interesting. A lot of numbers were estimates and they were not even based on concrete studies, and no allowance was given for the fact that employees who where going to shirk responsibilities and waste time would always find a way. Stretched breaks, and personal phone calls and reading magazines and newspapers on my time would still happen no matter what. Employees, like kids, are notoriously good at gaming a system, and thinking about how they would do so would simply occupy more of their time. So I thought the $5,000 per employee per year a tough number to attribute to activities Shortleash could control. So strike one was made-up numbers and some bad math leading to a suspect ROI.

Strike two was that Shortleash was set up to overlook every little detail of every minute of every day. Not my cup of tea, or coffee, even walking about just chatting or MP&GFA. Tightening the screws on employees like this makes no sense. Where does it stop? Coming in late, reading papers, bathroom breaks, staring out the window, Christmas shopping, showing off family and vacation photos; I'd have to hire a manager of micromanagement to oversee that kind of physical and electronic sweatshop.

Strike three was that I think their fundamental premise is wrong. Organizations are made valuable because of the ideas and brains and talents of its people. If you start putting too much of a leash on them, they'll work strictly on that leash, but with resentment and added stress, and much of their time would be wasted resenting but following procedures. Seems to me too that it would also curb creativity. I've certainly surfed the web at random, building on searches, and I've found some pretty interesting ideas and nuggets of information.

Finally, a quick Google and media search showed much of the push to clamp down on unproductive shirking and at-work surfing originates from the very companies like Shortleash that produce programs to monitor employees and their activities. I can only conclude these news releases with screaming headlines and those suspect studies are there simply to try and drum up new business.

So I think we'll just stay with what we have. We currently set guidelines on computer use, and rely on setting expectations, regular status reports, and providing a stimulating environment in which to work to ensure things get done on time. Our main computer guy, Watsa Mohdum makes sure our firewall is always up and secure, that our virus software is up to date, and that no one is able to download anything executable he doesn't know about. We've also said to our employees that we know they will sometimes surf the web for recreation, but we've asked them to do their shopping, checking out sports scores or playing games outside regular work hours. And of course no pornography, gambling, illegal activities, hate sites, tasteless material and music files and such.

And I accept that my employees are sometimes going to shirk. But too much of that will result in missed deadlines and expectations that cannot be explained away by such excuses as "traffic was horrible", and "oh jeepers, I forgot to switch the months on my calendar, I thought the 15th was next Thursday!"

As for Shortleash, I think not deploying it make us a better place to work, and lets us focus on marketing and production instead of managing minor details. So I told Watsa and our chief engineer Slide Rule to go have a drink after work at Mcneely's, and talk loudly and excitedly about this amazing VRS. I want them to tell the folks there that we're seriously thinking of implementing it to generate savings which we plan to put into an all out marketing campaign. 

You see I know some of the IT folks who work at our archrivals, Stacking Pits & Cavities, like to go there, and ever since they accused us of corporate espionage earlier this year, they've been pretty obvious in the tactics they're using to try and scoop us or at least keep up.

I'm hoping in this case to hand them something they'll scoop us on. Anything that diverts their attention and slows them down is bound to be good for us. Maybe spurring them on boldly will mean they'll have a hard time finding reverse.

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