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The Trades Union Congress last week criticised the blocking of employee access to social networking sites such as Facebook, saying that workers should be able to visit them in their lunch hour.

The organisation is hopelessly naive, as are the estimated 70 per cent of UK employers who have totally banned such sites – the TUC for believing that employees will log on only during a break and the companies for believing they can force the masses of bored employees to give their all. As Britain languishes in the productivity tables, we need a fundamental rethink about what really makes people work.

Amid all the news stories about stress and burnout, here once again we have a glimpse of the unspoken reality of the large office environment. Employers are blocking access to Facebook and to similar sites, such as MySpace, because they know from their research just how much time their workers are spending on them. Almost 40 per cent of internet use in companies is non-work related.

According to most surveys, the average employee spends about one hour a day surfing non-work related sites. Let us delve into this a little more deeply. First of all, these are self-reported surveys, so the figure is probably higher in reality. People do not like to admit, maybe even to themselves, that much of their working lives is pointlessly spent reading about celebrity gossip and the latest transfer targets of their favourite team. They prefer to think of themselves as useful, even indispensable, employees.

Second, there is still a good proportion who rarely surf the net, either because they are from a generation that has not been brought up with it or because they are genuinely busy and enjoy their job. If the average is nevertheless one hour, then it stands to reason that there is a substantial number who contentedly spend three, four or more hours surfing away. A recent survey by Vault, a leading provider of workplace information, found that 16 per cent of US office workers are on the internet “constantly”.

Banning Facebook will not accomplish anything other than push employees to other internet sites and personal e-mail, or lead to a revival of all those quaint time-fillers of the past, such as the fictional dentist appointment or the lengthy chat with colleagues by the coffee machine. The real issue that organisations face is not Facebook or YouTube, just as it was not Friends Reunited five years ago. It is a crisis of disengagement or – to cut the jargon – the truth that millions of people either despise their jobs or are utterly indifferent to them. According to Gallup, about one in five UK workers is “actively disengaged”, fundamentally disconnected from their work. Every single working day for them is a drag.

That is not the end of it. A further three in five, the majority of workers, are described by Gallup as “not engaged”, defined as “sleepwalking through their working day, putting time – but not energy or passion – into their work”. This leaves only one in five employees who do actually enjoy their work and are therefore presumably not prey to myriad distractions.

To confront this apathy, we require a huge cultural shift, supported by government policy, away from mass employment in large offices towards entrepreneurship and self-employment. A 2005 global survey by the Career Innovation Group reported a significantly higher level of job satisfaction among self-employed workers compared with the employed. The content of their work may be identical, but they feel a close connection to the product of their labour and have a natural incentive to make their business work. But what we have seen since Labour took power in 1997 is a rise of almost 12 per cent in public sector employment. The proliferation of these jobs has offered a cushy alternative to many who might otherwise have been tempted to take the plunge and start out on their own. This sad reality is borne out by the statistics. Whereas the percentage of self-employed within the overall workforce grew from 11.4 per cent to 13.4 per cent in the 10 years prior to 1997, it has fallen since then to 12.9 per cent.

The right correctly rails against waste in the public sector, but retains a romanticised view of the private sphere, neglecting the massive structural inefficiencies of the corporate behemoths. The left, meanwhile, remains convinced that the capitalist world is draining every last drop of sweat from its stressed-out workforce.

Political prejudice is clouding the reality. Wherever you have large offices, whether state-run or private, you will have people finding innovative ways to waste time. Surfing the internet is currently the preferred activity of bored employees because they can sit at their computer and retain the perception of working. But you will not find the self-employed immersed on Facebook for hours. The perception of working is irrelevant to them. They are paid for being productive, not for turning up.

The writer is author of The Living Dead: The Shocking Truth About Office Life

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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