Doing personal tasks at work makes you a better employee

The juggle is real.
The juggle is real.
Image: Reuters/Stefan Wermuth
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It’s perfectly normal for employees today to spend part of their working hours juggling personal responsibilities to ensure everything gets done. Most of us have logged in to a personal email account when we first sit down at our desk, checked missed calls and text messages between meetings, or scrolled through newsfeeds while in the kitchen, waiting for the coffee to brew.

In a Captivate Office Pulse study out today, we surveyed more than 500 professionals to understand the effects of what we have named the working daypart,” which is the time employees spend at the office accomplishing personal and professional activities. We found that, much like working from home or flexible paid time off, personal time at work has become an expected feature for employees across all levels and ages.

Nine out of ten employees (89%) said they go online for personal reasons while at work, like online shopping, scoping out a restaurant, paying bills, or making medical appointments. Millennials spend at least an hour per day on personal activities at the office, and three in four baby boomers go online for personal reasons at work. Nearly all the senior managers we surveyed (85%) admit to spending part of their workday tending to personal activities.

Due to society’s bias toward productivity, we’ve seen a significant increase in time spent at the office. However, longer hours worked correlates with higher stress levels and more personal activities conducted during the workday—which does not correlate with a productive, healthy workplace.

Digging deeper, we found that senior managers routinely work longer days and skip lunch breaks. More than two thirds of senior managers respond to work emails after hours, which leaves little downtime to conduct personal tasks outside of the office—no wonder we’re scheduling doctors’ appointments during work hours.

Our obsession with busyness is hurting the workplace and productivity as a whole. The goal is to support people in working smarter, not harder. As the internet blurs that little dash between work and life in the work-life balance, we need to find better ways to create a more flexible, dynamic, and inclusionary workplace. And that includes letting employees do personal tasks at work.

Defining the OOO

As a first step, employers should acknowledge that employees need a certain amount of time to tend to their personal lives, and make an effort to bake that into the workday culture from the start. Unfortunately, allowing employees to blur the line between work and personal responsibilities at their own discretion hasn’t necessarily solved the problem of longer office hours and the stress of tending to work tasks off the clock. However, formalizing and encouraging time for personal tasks could help.

Companies can fix this cult of busyness by incorporating more transparent work policies and/or providing tools for employees to see how they spend their time. Practices like no meeting Wednesdays and meeting black-out periods help employees improve productivity while at work.

But it’s also critical to ensure employees are actually disconnecting when they’re away from the office. Employers could implement a policy of having workers log out of their emails and apps on nights and weekends, with exceptions like an unavoidable deadline.

Employers can support their staff’s needs during the workday by formally allotting a few hours of the workweek to personal activity and instituting a specified timeframe across the company, so that employees don’t feel stressed about taking individual time while in the office. Closing early once a week, or even monthly, could ensure employees can make personal appointments without jeopardizing their schedule and workload.

Don’t reward presenteeism

Employers would benefit from identifying the types of personal tasks their employees most commonly feel they need to complete while at work, and offering corresponding benefits.

One of the most prevalent types of personal activity reported in our study was related to personal health and medical research. Some companies are approaching health in new ways, such as providing on-site clinical care. Workplace clinics have been shown to lower health-care costs, decrease work absences, and reduce presenteeism, which is when employees come to work even when sick or impaired by minor injuries or conditions, such as a sprain or a migraine. This makes them much less productive.

Forced attendance can negatively impact a company in multiple ways. Studies show that financial losses from presenteeism can total 60% of worker illness costs, and our own research found that 70% of business professionals admit they go into the office when they feel sick because they’re stressed, overloaded with work, and/or fearful of falling behind.

Knowing that employees are more likely to utilize preventative care if their employer encourages it, companies like Amazon, Apple, and Goldman Sachs are offering workplace clinics for employees to visit at any time during the workday.

The meaning of time management

Traditionally, we’ve depended on the nine-to-five grind of the 40-hour workweek as a framework that delineates where work begins and ends. With technology enabling a culture of telecommuting and emailing off hours, work today is no longer tethered to the desk.

Recently, a company in New Zealand trialed the four-day work week to create a more dynamic office culture. The company challenged employees to reach the same productivity goals in four days instead of five, and implemented a new company policy focused on a social contract. Their teams now provide a timeframe for what they plan to accomplish, set their own hours (previously dictated as 8:30am to 5pm), and are trusted to deliver. As a result, more than two thirds (78%) of employees felt able to manage work and other commitments, compared to about half (54%) before the trial. The company also reported higher productivity and steady revenue.

In short, employers should know that supporting their employees in leading balanced, healthy personal lives only benefits them in the end. This new framework will vary by employer, but at its core, restructuring the working daypart to give employees more flexibility will result in less distraction, less stress—and more productivity.