Sure it's OK to check Facebook or send a personal text while at work. That is, if you can find the time between keeping up on Yammer, collaborating over Skype and shoveling through the 125 emails the average office worker receives daily.

And, of course, that's in addition to completing your assigned tasks.

The problem here is information overload. Workers are so distracted — and frustrated — by frequent interruptions that it's costing US companies an estimated $588 billion a year in lost productivity. Often, this leaves employees feeling stressed out, sometimes long after leaving the office.

Between social networks, personal and professional email, phone calls and collaboration tools, the average worker is distracted every 11 minutes, according to a study by the University of California at Irvine.

Information Flood

"Employees have a challenge of managing all the information streams coming at them, whether it's their personal email, their work email or social collaboration software like Jive where they're being pinged all the time. No question there," said Carter Hostelley, the CEO of Leadtail who consults with companies about their social media strategies. "I believe people need training on how to manage and prioritize their days."

The need is so apparent that Sapience, which traditionally has sold its worker efficiency software to businesses, will soon launch a B2C product for workers who wonder "Where did my day go?" The company thinks of this as a FitBit-style solution that will help workers monitor their work efforts the way fitness trackers monitor their vital signs.

"What we are basically propagating is the concept of self-quantification at work," said Khiv Singh, Associate Vice President for the Americas for Sapience. "Work is the place where you spend the majority of time outside of home. And what we do at work affects everything else we do in our day."

Singh said the data helps support a healthy work-life balance. For example, if a worker finds she is spending an hour on social media, then doing an hour of work at home because she couldn't concentrate in the office, she has an opportunity to turn that around. She can focus on work in the office and set aside an hour for social media during the evening.


Big Brother, Sort of

This is a curious turn of events for Sapience, which describes its core products as Big Brother solutions to improving workplace efficiency. More than 100,000 users at 60 companies are already monitored through Sapience Buddy (shown above), a tool that lets workers know where their time is going. 

The Orwellian overtones tends to create a false impression. The software doesn't actually allow managers to snoop over individual workers. Managers can only see an aggregate view of how their workers divide their time between applications on the company network. It can't tell what is a personal email or a response to a client. Nor can it monitor calls, emails, texts or social posts on private smartphones or tablets.

"We do not do screen-scraping. We don't monitor keystrokes," said Singh. "That's not the solution. Some companies have done those things,  and they're Draconian steps. No. Give them freedom, but at the same time, give them data so that every individual can make their own decisions on how they want to use their time."

Singh said his customers are spread across business units -- HR, IT, operations, sales -- any group that needs to know how much time workers are spending on their core projects, communications or other tasks. The software can track employees by location, project, business unit or grades.

Crossing the Line

Hostelley agrees it would be "extremely counterproductive" if employers were to monitor individual social posts and emails. "I think that crosses the line into creating a workplace that doesn't feel social, open and collaborative," he said. "It almost harkens back to the day of minimum wage and timecards."

On the other hand, he said it's "very helpful" to provide tools that can help employees make better use of their time. "It's really about helping people do their jobs better," he said. "It's not trying to limit them so they can only work at work."

There are, of course, still companies in the financial and defense sectors that limit external communications or the possession of personal smartphones at work for security reasons. Beyond that, bans on personal communication have all but disappeared.

Staying Connected

"It’s not just that the premise is wrong," wrote Social Media Collective blogger Nancy Baym. "We’re also learning that blocking and banning policies are ineffective, giving traditionalist supervisors a false sense of control that, in reality, has been slipping away for years."

A 2013 Ipsos-Microsoft survey of 9,908 workers in 32 countries found nearly half felt that social media actually increases their productivity at work, and that more than 30 percent of companies underestimate the value of such tools.

"You either embrace it or you don't," said Hostelley. "But either way, employees are going to stay connected."

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License Title image by Phil and Pam.