Study: Young Employees Waste Time at Work

A new study shows young employees waste more time at work. Demands to get more done translate into spending more time at work. The amount of idle time drops off among employees older than 30. Peter Cappelli, a professor at Wharton Business School, talks with Steve Inskeep.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

On Wednesdays we talk about the workplace, and today we have new evidence of how much time we waste at work. Salary.com, which does compensation research for companies, recently surveyed employees about how they spend their working hours. And it found that they waste an average of 1.7 hours out of the average eight-and-a-half-hour workday.

We're going to kill a little time talking about this with Peter Cappelli, who's a management professor at the Wharton Business School at the University of Pennsylvania, at least when he's working. Welcome to the program.

Professor PETER CAPPELLI (Wharton Business School, University of Pennsylvania): Thank you.

INSKEEP: Prime vacation time, but here you are working, talking to us.

Prof. CAPPELLI: Yes. It's not my first choice of ways to spend the morning, but this is great.

INSKEEP: Does this have something to do, perhaps, with your age? Because you look at this study and it finds that 20 to 29-year-olds waste the most amount of time.

Prof. CAPPELLI: Well, you know, I guess I like to think about these issues by looking back a little bit in time, as a member of the baby boom generation, that our parents' generation thought we were the laziest generation in history, the most unkempt that you can imagine...

INSKEEP: And they were pretty much right about that, weren't they?

Prof. CAPPELLI: Well, they may have been right.

INSKEEP: Okay.

Prof. CAPPELLI: But we grew up to be the workaholic generation. So this issue of suggesting these are generational differences may not really be true. It may just be the way young people always behave and always act.

INSKEEP: So in any case, people who are young now seem to be wasting more time, according to this survey. What do they mean, anyway, by wasting time? What do you define that as?

Prof. CAPPELLI: What a lot of people are - in studies like this - are calling wasting time is simply work that is, you know, time that is not spent directly doing productive work. But I think this has always been the case, that it's almost impossible for anybody to be truly busy, particularly doing white-collar work, which is, you know, requires your eyes and your mind for eight hours straight without taking a break.

If you're on a college campus and you were doing work on your own schedule, you can do the work and get it done however you want. And if you're working in an office and have been working there for 20 years or so, you know that people frown on you walking around and hanging around the water coolers, so you find ways to stretch out and work slower.

INSKEEP: Well, who gets more done by the end of the day, the young sprinter or the older distance runner?

Prof. CAPPELLI: I would say, if I were to bet, that if you looked at the cost per hour - you factored in the fact that young people are cheaper, generally, than older workers - the younger folks are getting more done per dollars spent on them.

INSKEEP: Can I just ask, as we get asked to work more and more hours in the day, do we end up just wasting more of them?

Prof. CAPPELLI: I think there is some physical limit to the amount of work that you can get done in the day and beyond that, if you try to get people to do more of it, your productivity drops off so much that you're getting almost nothing from it.

INSKEEP: Well, are companies taking that into account when they figure out their work schedules?

Prof. CAPPELLI: No, I think they're not. The demands to get more done are simply translating into people being asked to spend more time at work. I can tell you that when I see our MBA students here, and we've asked the same exam question every year, which is ask them to analyze their last job and how they were managed, the hours of work have gone up incredibly, particularly in consulting firms, but especially in investment banking sorts of jobs. And you ask them how they're actually spending their time. They're at the office I'd say often 20 hours a day. And when you ask them what they're doing there, they're hanging around most of the time, waiting for somebody to hand them something to do. And the reason they're hanging around, frankly, is everybody expects them to hang around because that's kind of their definition of productivity.

INSKEEP: Well, I wonder if the satirical newspaper The Onion actually got this the right way when they had a headline recently that said 180 trillion leisure hours lost to work last year.

Prof. CAPPELLI: I'd say that's certainly one way of thinking about it.

INSKEEP: Peter Cappelli is a management professor at the Wharton Business School at the University of Pennsylvania. Thanks for spending some of your time with us.

Prof. CAPPELLI: Thank you.

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