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2 Fast Ways to Manage Personal Activities in the Workplace

personal activities in the workplace

I came across this ad while on the Skytrain on my way to the airport.  It depicts an office worker shopping online at their desk - enticed by promotions only available between 9:00 to 5:00 Monday to Friday - also know as workdays for most of us.  

personal activities at work
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Bold and creative, perhaps, but it got me thinking. How does that company address the use of technology or personal activities in their workplace? 

Personal Activities in the Workplace - the Stats

The stats of recent years shows a disturbing trend of decreasing productivity.  That's a fact. Not good for business and certainly not good for the economy.  An important contributor to this trend is employee access to technology and the internet in the workplace. Pick any article or survey on the topic. All point to an increasing challenge year over year. 

Here's one such summary

  • 30 to 40 percent of employee Internet activity is non-work-related, according to IDC Research.

  • Workplace Internet misuse costs U.S. businesses $63 billion in lost productivity annually, according to Websense Inc.

  • Charles Schwab reveals that 72 percent of its customers plan to buy or sell mutual funds over the next six months, and 92 percent of these plan to do so online during work hours.

  • 70 percent of all Internet porn traffic occurs during the 9-to-5 workday, according to SexTracker. This means that one in five employees access cybersex at work.

  • 28 percent of individuals making gift purchases do so from their offices or cubicles, according to Pew Internet and American Life Project.

Who's Absorbing the Cost for Decreased Productivity?

Consider that your business is paying employees to engage in increasing personal activities. The alarming trend is also coupled with an increasing sense of employee entitlement and shaming for companies who want to manage their businesses - claiming everything from Big Brother to obstruction of work/life balance. 

Let's also consider that when we refer to employers - we're usually not referring to big corporations with deep pockets. We're usually talking about small business - the backbone of the economy - who are often running in the red or just breaking even. I'll venture out on a limb here and say that an employee who gets paid for a full day's work when 1/3 of the day is spent on personal activities is, well, uhm, stealing. 

It gets worse. I recently read Dave Coplin’s book, The Rise of the Humans: How to Outsmart the Digital Deluge.  Turns out that it's not just the personal activities in the workplace that decrease productivity.  It's the domino effect. Humans typically only manage about 11 minutes of actual work at a stretch. Reacting to an incoming text, social media ping or personal email, or taking a break to initiate same, can take people from 15 to 23 minutes to get back to where they were before.  Now that's an astounding loss of productivity!

Save the Hate Mail

Please save the hate mail. The ones that will inevitably go something like this:  "I put in a lot of unpaid overtime." "I'm always connected to my phone for work purposes." "The employer is taking advantage of me not the other way around." Got it. Let's respectfully agree that this post does not refer to those of you whose net work day equals or exceeds the stated hours of work expected by your employer. But the stats show that you're not the majority, despite how busy and overloaded we all claim to be. 

Here's the thing. I believe that most of us don't realize how much time we're wasting on personal activities in the workplace. It's human nature to only remember and focus on the extra hours we put in. Personal activities in the workplace has become so engrained in our work life that we don't even think about it anymore, and we're all guilty of it.  I discuss this in the Job Activities Log and measuring productivity post. 

Here are 2 fast ways to start managing employees' personal activities in the workplace. 

Big Brother

Yes, I'm suggesting that you suck it up and take the plunge into the icy waters with written policies. It's your business, your shareholders and our economy that are at stake, unless you're not measured on the bottom line or providing value.  Go on and be clear. You can do it.  You just need to be prepared to be thick skinned about the shaming.  

Also consider that 'A' Players or high performers are often irritated and frustrated by the lack of focus and low productivity of employees who abuse personal activities in the workplace. You may be surprised to discover that the following policies will be welcomed.  

1.  No Expectations to Workplace Privacy Policy

Include a clear statement in your employment or independent contractor agreements, or employee handbook (if it's contractually binding) that communicates your company's right to monitor any activity that uses business tools and that there should be no assumption to a right to privacy in the workplace. This policy establishes that your company can monitor activities and use of that information may be for performance, conduct and workplace security monitoring.

Case law is still evolving in the areas relating to balancing privacy laws and a business' right to manage its workplace.  But what's clear is that if you don't let your staff know and they haven't signed that they are aware that your company reserves the right to monitor their activities, you'll be significantly more at risk of crossing a line and limited in what/when/how you monitor activities when you need to use that chip.


  1. Stating that the reason for monitoring is also to protect the individual and their co-workers is not only true, but softens the tone and intent of the policy. 
  2. ConnectsUs HR includes this policy in their Employee handbooks

2.  Cap the Time Spent on Personal Activities in the Workplace

It may be unrealistic to expect us not to attend to personal matters or engage in personal activities in the workplace, so here's a way to address the elephant in the room head on. 

Include a clear statement in your employment or independent contractor agreements, or employee handbook that defines “appropriate levels” of personal activities in the workplace as no more than say 30 minutes per day during the days an individual is working a full day, e.g. 8 hours. Daily periods permitted for personal activities are pro-rated for part-time employees or partial work days.

This policy is generous, progressive, and demonstrates flexibility. 30 minutes may not seem generous on the surface but it essentially provides a significant extra paid benefit to employees that can be calculated as 6% of their wages. Put another way, that’s 3 weeks of additional paid vacation.


  • Abuse or violation of appropriate levels of personal activities can now easily be addressed since this topic has been addresses and parameters have been created. 
  • Now that the genie is out of the bottle, you may be recoiling at the 6% removed from your bottom line. But the reality is that personal activities in the workplace has become another expected benefit in order for you to remain competitive in the war for top talent.  Consider that you're capping your losses at 6% instead of what could easily be 40% in some cases.  
  • Personal activities are brought out into the open and are no longer underground pursuits. Employees no longer have to toggle away from Expedia to display a spreadsheet on their monitors, or use their smart phones under their desks. You've given them permission to engage in personal activities, and they now understand the boundaries. 


  1. When communicating this policy, include the calculation as done above so that your employees understand the impact this benefit has on your for-profit business. 
  2. ConnectsUs HR includes this policy in their Employee Handbooks

Food for thought. If you asked your employees to choose between a salary increase of 6% with a zero tolerance for personal activities in the workplace, or the reverse, which would they choose? Hint: your millennial would choose option A.  

Bottom Line

You may be wondering why other measures were not discussed in this post, such as focusing on results instead of watching the clock.  2 reasons: 

  1. The intent of this post was to take immediate action and implement 2 quick fixes to help improve your workforce productivity.  Managing results, implementing flexible work schedules, or taking surveys to find out what employees want are not quick fixes and each represents an entire chapter of their own. 
  2. The other point of this post was to give employers permission to address a taboo subject and give them the confidence to set some parameters so that employees are clear and you have a better chance at improving productivity. 

Bottom line, if you're a small business or a start up, don't be shamed into silence.  Set the tone and your culture right away to help your people understand that they're expected to be smart about the use of their time in your workplace. 

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Ariane Laird Vancouver

Ariane Laird is CEO & Founder of ConnectsUs HR, a company that provides tools & resources to quickly set up a Human Resources department.  
You can contact her directly from the Inquiry Type drop down menu.