Is that a spreadsheet on your screen - or solitaire?

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

In the computer era, one game is ubiquitous, a humble standard on nearly every computer in the halls of international commerce.

The game, of course, is solitaire.

Here in North Carolina, the perennial favorite that was adapted so beautifully for the little screen has become a flash point between taxpayers and state employees. Goofing off on the cubicle computer may be today's version of the coffee break. But now some state lawmakers want the fun and games to stop - at least on company time. Saying taxpayers would be "outraged" to know how much work time is frittered away by insurance-commission secretaries and DMV employees honing their solitaire and Mine Sweeper skills on the state's 50,000 computers, Catawba County Republican Sen. Austin Allran has sponsored what may be the country's first anti- solitaire legislation.

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Senator Allran wants the state to erase the free game modules from all its computers - the digital version of throwing the deck in the trash can. The plan, he says, will save taxpayers millions in gained productivity - not to mention soothing their angst over secretaries and executives' long hours clicking digital decks.

The solitaire crackdown here, though perhaps rare in its specificity, is part of a behind-the-scenes battle over personal time that's affecting not just unionized state workers in North Carolina, but sales reps in Washington and phone-bank workers in San Francisco. It goes straight to the issue of distractions from long days at the office and, more fundamentally, how much of their employees' time and concentration employers can reasonably expect to own.

For many companies, workers' habits of playing computer games like solitaire are an outrageous affront: Employees, they insist, don't get paid for sorting Jacks from Kings and Queens. But for the country's burgeoning crop of workers who spend their days staring into computer screens, the notion of taking personal downtime on the company machine - and the company dime - can be an expression of individuality in a world where work and play are increasingly blurred. And sometimes, they say, it's the only way to muddle through the daily grind.

"We can't expect people to be saints in the office, but once the fingers have been pointed and the accusations made, there does have to be a standard established for how people use software games and when they use them," says Peter Sepp, a vice president at the National Taxpayers Union in Alexandria, Va.

A question of balance

The solitaire flap, experts say, is a spasm of a corporate and bureaucratic culture struggling to come to terms with the role of America's newest worker class, the information-technology (IT) professional. It's an army of foot soldiers that has allowed technology to reshape its lives. On one end was the image of Play Station-toting dot-commers in the mid-1990s. Now the pendulum has swung the other way, some experts believe, as cellphone usage is curtailed, personal e-mail at work is under fire, and politicians are worrying about the games workers play.

Beverly Burris, a sociologist at the University of New Mexico, says she has tracked an anecdotal increase in restrictions on e-mail use at work in cities from Washington to San Francisco.

In Las Vegas, for instance, an industrial supplier restricts the use of company cellphones to business matters and audits employees' cellphone bills.

And in the Meat Grading & Certification section of North Carolina's Agriculture Department, a local directive is already in place to discourage goofing off. "Each division already has their own policies on game-playing," says one employee, who did not want to give her name.

But research done by the IRS has shown that over 50 percent of the time an IRS employee goes on a computer, he or she also hooks up to the Internet to shop, gamble or play games.

"If you go back to the middle of the 19th century and the writings of Karl Marx, workers under the factory system would lose a considerable amount of their identity and a sense of ownership with what they were doing," says Bill Snizek, a work sociologist at Virginia Tech University in Blacksburg. "What employers today have to decide is whether permitting employees at certain prescribed times to gain some amount of psychic enjoyment by playing games will make up for some of the lost identity and pride in work."

The real impact of distraction

A central question is whether playing a hand or two of solitaire has a dramatic effect on the bottom line - or if it actually helps productivity by giving workers a low-stress outlet in otherwise frantic days. It all points to industry and government trying to make sense of how costs accumulate on personal time, and what role ubiquitous technology - with its entertaining byproducts - has on labor and productivity.

To Mr. Sepp at the Taxpayers Union, it's not just a matter of gaming opportunities; workers' own attitudes and industriousness are just as big a problem or a boon. "The question is: Should the rules and laws look at not just opportunity, but also motive and behavior, because, quite frankly, that's part of the problem," he explains.

It's a special PR problem, of course, for the state workers who toil in plain, tidy buildings that dominate this city. After all, though they keep the state running smoothly for the most part, the public isn't shy about expressing disapproval - as happened recently in Raleigh, when state and city crews couldn't stop a half-inch of snow from causing the city's worst-ever traffic snarl.

The trouble with a law

For their part, IT workers here in North Carolina say lawmakers are playing the wrong hand. Calling the proposed law a slap in the face, they say it plays into what they say are undeserved stereotypes of bureaucrats doing their jobs with blank faces and zombie-like shuffling across the floor.

Now, say some, state government is doing what private industry has long practiced: expecting more work from fewer workers. That leaves little time in the normal workday for twiddling thumbs.

"A popular view of government is that you sit around and take a day to sharpen a pencil, but it's not like that," says one woman in North Carolina's Department of Cultural Resources public-affairs office. "When I was not in state government, sure I'd see [some people playing games], but it's quite the opposite here. People are just scrambling to get their work done within a normal business day."

Labor experts say the efficiency tack is reminiscent of factory-efficiency studies in the 1920s, where analysts tried to break down the mechanics of assembly-line behavior - why does it take a certain amount of time for a worker to tighten a bolt? The problem? "Managers lost sight that workers are real people, not robots," says Scott Kirwin, the founder of the IT Professionals Association of America in Wilmington, Del.

"Managers, and in this case politicians, don't know how to effectively utilize the people they're in charge of - and that's one cause of offshoring these jobs," he says. "You have to ask yourself, if someone is so bored that playing solitaire is stimulating, then the problem is not with the game, it's with the job."

And despite employers' fears about a sinking bottom line, some say the legislation, if passed, would cost more than it would save, since the state would have to send out teams to each location and erase the games by hand. And what would stop workers from downloading them again?

Others insist the problem that the bill attempts to solve is difficult, if not impossible, to quantify.

"It's easy to allege that a lot of people are playing solitaire, but it's harder to document how many people actually are," says Dr. Burris, the coauthor of "Technocratic Teamwork.

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