Worker Productivity in the Google Age

Does playing with Google Doodles and other games at work have long-term benefits?

Earlier this month Google released a new, interactive “Doodle” on it’s homepage inviting users to pluck a few guitar strings in honor of music legend Les Paul’s birthday.

The logo (pictured) allowed users to play songs with their keyboard or mouse and record up to 30 seconds that could be shared with friends. It was so popular the tech giant opted to host it permanently on another page.

Last year Google paid similar tribute to pop culture by turning its iconic logo into a working version of Pacman.

As bosses around the country  may expect, the Les Paul guitar cost millions in worker productivity – an estimated $268 million.

But what if wasting time at work sparked creativity or developed skills necessary for future business applications?

It can, depending on the type of distraction.

Dominic Thomas, Adjunct Assistant Professor of Information Systems & Operations Management at Goizueta, says the labor force already operates at less than 100 percent productivity. He says most white collar workers are productive only 65 to 75 percent of the time.

Other surveys say workers “waste” upwards of two hours a day. The rest of the time is spent surfing the Internet or working on tasks not directly related to their job function.

But, according to Thomas, even unproductive time can be productive in the long term and vital to development.

“It’s an illusion to think people are working constantly or that it’s necessarily good to do so,” Thomas said. “It’s importatnt to imagine what this might do for the workplace and how it could be useful.”

Playing with Google Doodles or games may increase creativity and improve skills required for the next generation of workplace technology. In the guitar example, computer users are not just playing and recording tunes, they’re becoming more familiar with a web interface.

Thomas said consumer-level toys have aspects that will revolutionize business. Many times, workers are first introduced to technologies via games or apps.

Messing around with the iPad at the office? You’re getting more accustom to touch screens, which will continue to grow in popularity and function.

“We’re beginning to see tremendous data visualization and drill-down tools available to business but workers really don’t have the skills to really use them yet,” he said. “This is a way those skills get to the work force.”

In fact, studies have shown playing games at work can help long-term productivity, innovation and, all-in-all, make people feel better about their jobs.

“This is a stepping stone to gaining the skills that will enable the advance techinolgies to leverage worker productivity,” Thomas said. “Solitaire was the fantastic teacher of how to use a mouse and interact with a computer. Games are ways we learn — we learn how to manipulate data.”

Many tech companies like Google embrace unproductive behaviors, giving workers a chance to slack on the job in the hopes of something bigger. Some of Google’s greatest innovations — like Gmail and Google Analytics — started as sanctioned side projects, Thomas said.

“In an ironic sense, by giving away 20 percent [of time] they’re increasing worker productivity,” Thomas said of Google, adding freedom to work on unrelated projects or simply take classes or play games on the clock can increase retention rates and overall satisfaction.

But he says firms should be careful in acknowledging — and trying to benefit from — the illusion of 100 percent productivity. It is, after all, sanctioning behavior that is potentially destructive.

“We do know distractions do, in fact, distract,” he said. “In general, people can’t concentrate as well when they have TV and radio and all sorts of signals playing around their head. Noise does matter. It does impact our ability to think. What’s the sweet spot? What should you allow? We’re not sure yet. I think it depends on people, jobs and security requirements as they relate to specific business needs.”

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