Is it time to reinvent the 40-hour workweek?

“Wasted time at work costing companies billions,” blares the headline on a recent survey.

“Workers admit wasting time,” another headline reveals. Shocking. Simply shocking.

An online survey of 10,000 employees, conducted by America Online/Salary.com, reveals that the “average worker” admits to frittering away 2.09 hours per day, not counting lunch.

Just to clarify: In this case, the “average worker” the survey refers to is the average white collar worker with Internet access. Factory workers, restaurant workers, construction workers, part-time workers, etc., don’t have the luxury of frittering away two hours at work. If work is slow, they are sent home.

How do white collar workers waste time? Surfing the Internet, naturally. That was the top response, followed by socializing, conducting personal business, spacing out, running errands, making phone calls, applying for jobs, and arriving late or leaving early. (Insurance workers came up the biggest time wasters in the survey, with 2.5 hours unaccounted for. Hard to imagine any down time in that crazy, go-go-go business.)

According to the report, this unproductive time adds up to $759 billion annually in salaries for which companies get no apparent benefit. Wow. That’s a lot. But it’s a different kind of cost, say, than the U.S. Department of Agriculture sending $1.1 billion in farm payments to more than 170,000 dead people over seven years.

What is rarely addressed in these discussions is how long an actual job takes to complete. Or how the 40-hour workweek is an arbitrary number and how it could be reinvented to better reflect reality. People are generally “full-time” workers when they work 38-40 hours a week. People almost always need full-time work in order to receive medical and other benefits.

Perhaps business leaders who are worried about that $759 billion spent on salaries of workers who admit they don’t work eight hours a day could crunch the numbers, as they say, and find that a 30-hour workweek with benefits just might make sense economically for many jobs in many industries.

It would be smart and efficient, not lazy, to shorten the workweek, and make it more flexible, where feasible. With all the advances in technology, shouldn’t the white collar workweek be shorter than it was 50 years ago? Do employers prefer to continue allowing employees to conduct personal business at work (the survey said they expect employees to waste an hour day, but were surprised at the self-reported two hours) or give them another day to do it outside of work?

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