Web-surfing Walt. Coffee-break Cathy. Long-lunch Larry.

More than 10,000 people polled by America Online and Salary.com this year admitted wasting time at work.

The question is whether the guy playing Internet poker completes work he is paid to do, Salary.com executive Bill Coleman said. For most office dwellers “it’s not about the hours you work but the intensity and volume of work you produce,” said Coleman, senior vice president, compensation, for Salary.com. The company, based in Needham, Mass., provides compensation-related data, software and services.

“Managers should not be ostriches,” Coleman said. “Pay attention to employees and see what they’re doing. You should have a good sense of who’s truly wasting time. It’s not simply which people chat in the hall every day. It’s about who is being less productive.”

Many perceived time wasters are anything but, Coleman said. Banter by the water cooler? That builds relationships between co-workers. Paying personal bills online? It enables an employee to stay late at the office during crunch time. Staring blankly into space? That’s simply workers’ way of recharging mentally, Coleman said.

At least, that’s what managers hope they’re doing. According to Salary.com and AOL, human-resources professionals assume workers waste roughly one hour each workday on personal tasks. Employees, on the other hand, admitted wasting about twice that much time each day.

Top workplace time wasters

1. Internet surfing: 44.7 percent say they waste time this way. “We no longer expect to have a boss that watches everything we do,” said John A. Challenger, chief executive officer of the Chicago outplacement firm Challenger Gray & Christmas Inc. “Part of that freedom is that people can (go online) and take a look at sports scores, e-mail a friend. It’s when it gets out of hand that action needs to be taken.”

2. Socializing with co-workers: 23.4 percent. “In a workplace environment where people don’t know each other as well and haven’t worked together for years and years, you want people talking,” Challenger said. “It creates trust and rapport.”

3. Conducting personal business: 6.8 percent. “The lines between work and home life have blurred considerably,” said Melvin Smith, assistant professor of organizational behavior at Case Western Reserve University’s Weatherhead School of Management. “To not allow them some type of flexibility would not be very constructive. It would be viewed as the employer being heavy-handed.”

Challenger said: “You’ll drive everybody out the door if you give them no freedom at all, no autonomy to do personal things at work.”

4. “Spacing out”: 3.9 percent. “Humans can’t concentrate fully for extended periods,” Coleman said. “You need a break. I think your body will automatically create a break if you don’t.”

5. Running errands off premises: 3.1 percent. “Companies that have free food, free drinks, free coffee even – the reason they do that is because they want people to stay in the office,” Coleman said. “I would rather have you take time out of your workday to go to the (company) kitchen to grab a Coke than running to Starbucks.”

6. Personal phone calls: 2.3 percent.

7. Applying for other jobs: 1.3 percent.

8. Planning personal events: 1 percent.

9. Arriving late/leaving early: 1 percent.

10. Other: 12.5 percent.

Top excuses for wasting time

1. Don’t have enough work to do: 33.2 percent. “The trend I saw in 15 years in corporations was the opposite,” Smith said. “Because of downsizing and removing layers and layers of management, people had too much to do.”

Said Coleman: “The word I use to describe it is disappointing – that there are people sitting around waiting to be told what to do next.”

2. Underpaid for amount of work: 23.4 percent. “There’s this twisted logic that says, “If I’m sitting at the office not working, I’m getting paid more per hour,”‘ Coleman said. “It really doesn’t do anybody any good. It’s not putting money in the parking meter. It’s a little nitty way of taking something back – taking paper clips.”

3. Co-workers distract me: 14.7 percent.

4. Not enough time after work: 12 percent.

5. Other: 16.7 percent.

Amount of time wasted

Companies assume employees will waste about an hour per day, and the employers build that into compensation. However, human-resources managers suspect – and correctly – that the actual figure is higher.

“The biggest surprise was the fact that HR people misjudged the amount of time people were wasting,” Coleman said.

Assumed by HR: 0.94 hour per day.

Suspected by HR: 1.6 hours per day.

Admitted by employees: 2.09 hours per day.

Costs to employers

Based on the average yearly American salary of $39,795 ($19.13 hourly) for an eight-hour day.

Total salary dollars wasted per employee annually: $5,720.

Total number of American workers (nonfarm): More than 132 million.

Total salary cost to companies: $759 billion.

SOURCES: Salary.com, America Online

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