Downtime Management: Surfing May Not Be Slacking

By Kellye Whitney

We’ve all seen it: Employees yacking on personal calls, engaging in protracted personal e-mail sessions or indulging in a string of instant messaging. All of which seem to shout: Slacker! But these seemingly non-work related activities may be an important piece of a productive employee’s workday.

The speed and scope of modern business have made issues such as cognitive health and stress management necessary topics for talent managers. New conditions such as Blackberry thumb, attention deficit trait and worries over energy depletion also are making the rounds as research surfaces to indicate downtime and play actually have value to adults they promote high performance and stimulate brain power and creativity.

Still, it’s natural for the average talent manager to raise an eyebrow when an employee is giving rapt attention to streaming online video or music downloads instead of assigned work tasks. But that may be an outdated view. As long as the employee consistently performs well, meets deadlines and adheres to the melange of other criteria that mark a high performer as such, the occasional break might be needed stress relief to ensure said high performer continues to produce at expected levels.

Present vs. Engaged, Activity vs. Accomplishment

Managing employee downtime may not require much physical work. Instead, talent managers may want to adapt their attitudes about non-work related activity to suit the changing nature of work and the modern business environment. The first step is to determine how to treat certain behaviors and decide what exactly productive and unproductive downtime are. For example, in some organizations, such as those with significant research and development functions, what looks like goofing off actually may be thinking or incubating. This may occur in organizations where lab work is common.

It’s also important to consider that more and more employees today are connected 24×7, particularly if they work on a global team. High-performing employees likely know when they’re most productive, and if they can be encouraged or enabled to decide how and when to work, they are generally more effective.

“If you’ve got a call at 6 in the morning and another one at 11 at night, in order to maintain some balance, there is a need to take some time during the day to take care of personal matters,” said Jodi Starkman, COO of global consulting for ORC Worldwide. “We have a client who talked recently about how he hired this exceptionally brilliant young marketing guy, and he said, ‘The guy likes to work at some place like Starbucks on an Apple computer, even though the company uses IBM. He has his own way of doing things.’ He said at first he had to deal with the fact that he had preconceived notions about the way people should work, which is not necessarily sitting in the office from 9 to 5.”

Flexibility and setting performance expectations are especially important when considering a formal or informal stance on non-work related activities. Talent managers must establish clear goals regarding deliverables and deadlines, be less rigid about enforcing a specific work structure and avoid watching to see who’s sitting in his or her seat looking or behaving a certain way.

Communication and feedback also are important as talent managers begin to move from a more traditional management style.

“Coaching for high performance, how to enable people to work more productively is not necessarily about providing more structure,” Starkman explained. “Seeing people looking busy is not necessarily seeing people accomplishing anything: The outcomes are more important.”

The most important thing is that employees meet their objectives, said Laura Reeves, chief talent officer at the American Cancer Society.

“We need to be able to allow people in this technology age to think a little bit creatively it’s empowering people to get the work done in the way they need to get it done. The way that people do work has changed with all of the tools that we have. It’s important to be flexible and provide an environment where people are empowered to get the work done in a way that’s best for them. That does enhance productivity.”

Aside from technology, some of the impetus for the shift in work taking place is due to the influx of the Net Generation and the Millennials, who prefer to work in a different way, said David Smith, managing director of human performance for North America at Accenture.

“The past clock in, clock out, eight hours on the job is an old metaphor,” he said. “Now they work in spurts. They do a lot of work, then research, then take some time to do something different, listen to music, explore, surf the net, Facebook collaborate, something. Then they’ll do (more) work. Their dimension of time is vastly different and the winners are being forced to adapt to this new way of work, but do high-performing talent managers understand that output is the key? Obviously, output has constraints to it, but if you shift your measurement system to output and don’t try to control different factors like the exact time of day one is doing the job, you can begin to drive the levels of productivity you want.”

Build Awareness

In order to incent and promote the level of performance necessary to compete and win in today’s global marketplace, Smith said talent managers must be self-reflective in their own behaviors. This may require an organizational cultural change, but as long as the output is there, downtime is not a bad word.

“Employers haven’t really done a good job to date preparing talent managers,” Smith said. “If you think about it, talent managers probably are from a different generation. They could be Gen Xers or boomers. This cross-generational issue, and how organizations are preparing their cross-generational employees to understand and deal with some of these issues, is a growing trend.”

Many organizations are preparing talent managers for this work shift with development activity such as coaching and reverse mentoring. Smith said some of Accenture’s new-generation workers have real power to teach older workers about tools available in the organization that can help them be more effective.

“Reverse mentoring is a role that hits right at the heart of this issue. Managers don’t have to feel they need to be 24×7 or eight straight hours on one thing. It’s OK for managers to deal with some of this in a different way,” he said.

Create a “Smoking Room”

Fact: Employees are going to engage in non-work related activities on the job. The new school of thought suggests talent managers should adapt to the flexibility of younger employees entering the workforce because imposing potentially outdated and unnecessary structure in the name of increased productivity may create the opposite effect. Therefore, talent managers must decide how to create an environment that will give workers what they need and simultaneously promote the high performance the company requires. Some companies are creating special renewal rooms where employees can go to relax and refresh, but there are simpler solutions that don’t take up real estate.

“High-performing cultures offer things for the employee that go outside business,” said Michael Rosenberg, principal at OYG Consulting Inc. “They give people flex time and ways to work because they recognize very clearly that you can’t function at a high level if you’re burned out. Within any workplace, you need a certain amount of flexibility and chaos, some unstructured things.”

Rosenberg illustrated his point with the following story of one Canadian client who, when the city of Ontario enacted laws making it illegal to smoke inside any public building or place, transitioned employees into the new regime by setting up smoking rooms.

“I was talking to the HR director at Atomic Energy Canada Ltd., and the biggest regret he had was that they got rid of those smoking rooms,” Rosenberg said. “He told me the senior vice president said he’d had great feedback on issues they were looking at from this guy he talked to in the smoking room. He said, ‘Who is this guy? What is he a manager of?’ The HR director looked him up on the employee list and found out he was on the custodial staff. He was the janitor, but they were just talking as addicts, not as labels, and they were able to implement a lot of ideas because of the unofficial, unstructured communication going on in the smoking room. The idea of where performance lies is, ‘How do we create the smoking room without the smoke?'”

One way to build this metaphoric smoking room is to create and promote off-site events that build engagement and bring together disparate employee populations outside of work. Rosenberg said this not only allows employees to engage with one another in different ways, it can build loyalty but only if the culture will accept and sustain this type of attitude and activity.

“SAS is a good example of a company that really creates a culture that does this. When Jim Goodnight started SAS on Wednesdays, they’d bring in M&M’s for everybody. When people start eating the M&M’s, they start talking,” Rosenberg said. “On-site day care works, too, because people have kids in common, and that creates dialogue. Many friends are friends because their kids are friends. The day care becomes the smoking room and gives people the space to talk as friends, not just in a strictly professional atmosphere. This impacts performance because it builds trust.”

The point to any adaptation of the traditional work value system is to ensure employee productivity and creativity are not stunted. Talent managers want to create a culture in which the final measure of performance is how employees perform against established objectives and competencies to provide value for the organization.

“Are you doing what needs to be done? That’s the bottom line to me,” Reeves said. “If you can accomplish things, there’s a level of reasonableness about chatting on cell phones during the day. I’ve worked places where they shut off Internet access because they didn’t want people surfing the Web, and that doesn’t do anything to enhance employee morale. As long as there’s honesty, openness, sort of a transparency and people aren’t hiding in corners talking on cell phones and running downstairs to an Internet service to check their home e-mail, I think it’s just a reality of the way we live.”

Source: Talent Management

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