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Why you shouldn't punish employees who goof off

Rob Enderle | Feb. 13, 2013
Employees who buy stuff online aren't slackers. Step back and look at the contributions they make outside normal business hours (whether at home or at their desk) before you watch them like a hawk, make them sign a timesheet and restrict their Internet habits.

A Today Show segment this week focused on what companies were doing to stop cyber-slackers. It seems-and this should hardly surprise any of us-that folks often use their company PCs and Internet connection to do things like shop at work. Shame on them, the story said, encouraging efforts to stamp out these horrid practices and make sure people are working properly.

Hang on. Many of these same people work from home on their own time, and one of the reasons they have to do things like shop online at the office is because they no longer have the personal time to get things done. Stopping the activity in those cases could actually reduce productivity, lowering their after-hours contributions or creating bigger personal issues they'll still have to deal with at work.

Intel's Lesson: Work Isn't Confined to the Office Anymore

As Intel went through some difficult times in the 1990s, management noticed that a lot of employees came in late and left early. Executives would sit in their cubes-even the CEO had a cubicle-and watch folks enter and leave at all times. The conclusion: People were slacking off.

A new policy followed. Managers logged their employees in at 8 a.m. and out at 5 p.m.-- and productivity fell like it went off a cliff. The Intel employees showing up late often worked from home until the early hours of the morning, and those going home early often came in very early or worked through the night on a project.

As a result, the folks who had been working all those extra hours collectively said "the heck with it" and started working regular hours, and the folks who had been taking advantage of the flexibility came in but slacked off. It was quite literally one of the stupidest things I've ever seen a company do. Thankfully, some smart people ran Intel, and the policy was reversed once management saw the results.

Productivity's Not In the Eye of the Beholder

My grandfather, the CEO of a large petrochemical company, like to tell me a story when I was growing up. A big steel CEO hired an efficiency expert to study the steel plant and look for potential improvements. The expert found a guy just sitting around and drawing, and he recommendation that the plant get rid of this seemingly useless guy. The CEO fired the efficiency exert, explaining that the guy's doodles had saved millions and made him one of the company's most valuable employees.

If employee metrics focus on what is important to the firm-that is, what people actually accomplish-then most everything works itself out. On the other hand, if metrics focus on how long someone is in the office or what he does while on company property, particularly when he may actually be most productive at home, the resulting policies could do more harm than good.


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