Just because technology can help fix some of the symptoms doesn’t mean you’re actually addressing the problem.

The real reasons behind lost productivity are a lot harder to sell to managers: poor planning, low morale, and bad management.

The last few years have seen an enormous growth the in technologies available to companies to monitor and filter their employees’ e-mail, Web surfing, instant messaging, and any other technology-related time wasters. This sort of thing generally doesn’t go down well with the IT media, since many journalists have a slight lean to the left. Because it smacks of Big Brother, journos tend to express outrage about the invasion of workers’ rights and so forthââ,¬”a position many workers tend to agree with.

On the business side of the fence, these products are well received, not necessarily because managers enjoy trampling on or invading the privacy of their subordinates, but because the vendors of this software pitch the message in terms of return on investment. “Your employees are wasting your money,” they proclaim, “spend money with us to stop them!”

One such company, SurfControl, thoughtfully provides an ROI calculatorââ,¬”enter the number of employees, average hourly wages, and the amount of time spent on unproductive personal Web surfing or e-mail. Multiplying these figures together, the calculator estimates the amount of money your company is “losing”. Dividing this figure by the cost of SurfControl’s software, it estimates an ROI period.

Using a modest estimate of an hour a day spent on personal e-mail and Web surfing, even a relatively small company such as this magazine’s publisher is apparently losing somewhere in the vicinity of half a million dollars a year because of its slacker employees. If SurfControl’s software were used to stamp out this wasteful activity, it would pay itself off in less than a day (I hope my manager doesn’t read this).

One has to assume, however, that executives are not entirely thick, and would not take these figures literally. For one thing, the calculations are overly simplistic, and don’t take into account bandwidth or management costs. And if of course if employees aren’t wasting time on e-mail or the Web, there are numerous other ways to waste time that can’t be filtered.

However, the real assumption behind this debateââ,¬”that personal e-mail or Web surfing are a significant and costly waste of employee productivityââ,¬”is taken for granted. And this is because the real reasons behind lost productivity are a lot harder to sell to managers: poor planning, low morale, and bad management.

A recent study titled Untapped Potential by management consultants Proudfoot Consulting examined productivity levels across seven countries including Australia. It found that Australian workers only spend 60 percent of their time at work productively, compared with an optimum level of 85 percent (leaving out time for sick days, holidays, and training).

The study found by far the greatest cause of lost employee productivity is insufficient planning and control, accounting for 47 percent of all wasted time in Australian businesses. Next on the list: inadequate management, 24 percent. Poor working morale was nine percent, as was inappropriately qualified staff, and IT-related problems accounted for only seven percent.

Admittedly, personal e-mail and Web surfing are symptoms of these problems, rather than causes in themselves. However, curtailing employees’ personal use of IT assets will not fix any of these problems. It won’t reduce the amount of time employees spend redoing work because of bad planning, or barking up the wrong tree because managers didn’t communicate their goals clearly. It won’t fixââ,¬”except perhaps tangentiallyââ,¬”computer downtime or time wasted trying to find badly-filed documents. It will have no effect on the amount of work duplicated because of departments’ silo mentalities, and it certainly will not improve employees’ morale.

This is not to say filtering and monitoring are useless or pointless. But managers should seek to use them as part of an overall strategy that addresses the causes of the problems, rather than band-aiding the symptoms.

Josh Mehlman is features editor of Technology & Business. Subscribe now to Australian Technology & Business magazine.