Sidebar: The Problem With Laptop Productivity

As the use of corporate laptops broadens, workers are finding that mobility is a double-edged sword. Laptops offer the flexibility of being able to take work home, work flextime or telecommute. But as the boundary lines between work and personal time blur, employees with laptops appear to be working more hours than those with desktops. Do laptop users face increased expectations -- or when work comes home on a laptop, do they just lack the discipline to know where to draw the line?

The conventional wisdom, borne out by industry studies, is that staffers with PCs work more hours. Most recently, a Dell Inc. study of 1,000 respondents in midsize and large organizations showed that when an employee is given a laptop instead of a desktop, productivity increases by 7.7 hours a week on average (the numbers range from 5.2 hours more for deskbound users to 13.3 hours for frequent travelers).

In some cases, the increased productivity may arise from better use of downtime, such as the ability to check e-mail while traveling. But in many situations, productivity gains appear to reflect a real increase in total working hours. "We know [our employees] are working more. We can see the usage on our ERP system, the times they're logged into e-mail," says Mike Sink, director of infrastructure at Kichler Lighting Group.

In more competitive industries where employees are required to put in extra hours, laptops offer users more flexibility. At Kichler, for example, engineers are expected to work an extra 10 hours each week beyond the normal 40 hours. "Rather than stay until 7:30 at night, most [engineers] would rather go home at 5 and work after the kids are in bed," says Sink.

Expectations may also be raised when an employee is given a laptop. New managers at Kichler typically request one, says Sink. "Three weeks later, they wish they never had," he says. "The expectation changes [to], 'OK, you can take work home with you, so I'm going to expect more.'"

Ultimately, however, the presence of a laptop may simply be facilitating such employee work habits rather than creating the conditions for those habits to occur. While Kichler employees are spending more time working on their laptops, they didn't just start working those extra hours. "They were taking more stuff home to begin with," Sink says.

Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

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