Wasting time online is one of the primary ways workers can drain productivity from your team. Some employees kill time mindlessly surfing the Web throughout the work day. Others do their personal business online rather than taking care of your business. Access to social media has increased the temptation to check out at work and check in to what’s happening with friends and family away from the office. Technology, and particularly access to the Internet, can boost productivity if used appropriately but certainly hurts if used as a distraction from work rather than a tool for it.

Chris (manager approaching team member Jeremy at his desk): Good morning, Jeremy.
Jeremy (laughing at something funny on his monitor, quickly and awkwardly closes his laptop): Hey! Good morning, Chris. How are you?

Yes, one of the constant challenges of a modern manager’s life is employees like Jeremy wasting valuable time on the Internet. Employees have always made personal phone calls and done their share of personal business during working hours, but the Internet is different, because you can’t tell when someone’s working or wasting time—they look the same. An obvious approach to the problem of people wasting time online is to try and block access to all but essential websites.

Jeremy (looking intently at his monitor, yells to coworker): Oh, great. Dave, guess what! Can’t even check my son’s school schedule anymore. You can add that to the growing list of websites they’ve blocked us from viewing.

This approach sets you up for fighting a losing battle. It seems methods getting around your attempts to filter out websites begin to appear as quickly as you can implement ways to block access. Smart phones are everywhere, so your team members don’t even need to use company equipment to waste time online. Similarly, zero tolerance policies for unauthorized Web browsing and cell phone use during work hours, termination of employees ignoring the rules, and removing Internet access from all but one supervised computer merely pit management against staff. These types of prevention efforts put more focus on getting around the system—and catching those who do—than getting work done.

Setting up a series of conflicts between you and your employees is not healthy, either, so here’s a better approach. Ask yourself why people are spending unauthorized time on the Internet. If you think about it, there are only two possibilities. First is that they don’t have enough to do, and second is that they don’t care enough to want to do it. The way you deal with this is to create higher priorities for people.

Chris: Okay, Jeremy, let’s review your to-do list. What are your goals for the week?
Jeremy: Well, I was going to work on next year’s budget.
Chris: Well, yeah, but that’s for the long term. What about your immediate priorities?
Jeremy: Well, you know, there’s always just “stuff” that comes up every day so … gotta knock that out.
Chris: Sounds like we need to agree on some more immediate goals and objectives, Jeremy.
Jeremy: Yeah—okay.
Chris: Let’s start with the important stuff. What are the really big issues the team needs to deal with today? I mean right now.
Jeremy: Right, well, there’s the system upgrade.
Chris: Okay. How can you contribute to that?
Jeremy: Well, I feel like our system is running at about half the speed it needs to be, so if I could just get a couple more servers … .

You see? It’s never your busy people who waste time. It’s your people who don’t think they have enough to do, and you need to give them higher priorities. That means giving them things that they want to do more than they want to waste time, or where the costs of not doing them are higher than the benefits of wasting time. Agree on clear objectives with the employee and make sure that these are stretching and motivating enough to keep them engaged.

Very often the fact that you’re annoyed that someone’s wasting time with the Internet is just a symptom of the fact that you’re annoyed generally with their standard of work. If you doubt that, consider your star performers. Would you be as bothered if you noticed them occasionally wasting time?

Chris (approaching Anna at her desk): Good morning, Anna!
Anna: Oh, Chris…hey! I finished these reports that you need for next week.
Chris: Wow! Already? Thank you!
Anna: Oh, I hope you don’t mind, I was just confirming vacation plans online here.
Chris: Huh? Why would I mind? You do a great job and deserve a vacation. Thanks again.

The bottom line is that you probably don’t mind if a strong performer spends time once in a while on the Web or on their personal e-mail. No, it’s when someone’s not getting the results you need that you become annoyed.

Remember the following key points to help you prevent workplace distractions—like the lure of social media and other online temptations—from reducing your team’s quality of work or damaging staff morale and your relationship with your team members.

KEY POINTS

  • Wasting time online is not really the problem, but is just a symptom of a larger problem. Either the employee doesn’t have enough to do or is not committed enough to do it.
  • Rather than focusing on the symptom, circle back around and address the real problem.
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