Finding the Slacker-Worker Equilibrium

 
 
By Deb Perelman  |  Posted 2007-02-01
 
 
 

Finding the Slacker-Worker Equilibrium


Everyone knows The Solitaire Guy. Hes the one with the red message light on his phone always blinking, the one that gives the "Ill get to it, Ill get to it" brush-off whenever hes asked when hell get his tasks done. Hes late to meetings, forgets to return phone calls, his desk is cluttered and nobody can remember the last time he did any significantly helpful work.

But hey, everyone is that Solitaire-playing loafer from time to time: the CIO with the suspiciously low golf handicap; the woman in telecom who does the vanishing act everyday at 4:45 p.m.; your buddy in the next cube who is always "too busy, cant talk" but nobody knows quite with what.

But the smart and successful workers are the ones that know the difference between occasionally visiting Slackersville and buying a home there. The latter are loathed universally; their managers throw their hands in the air, wondering how these so-called workers ever made it through an HR screening process.

Yet the former can do alright for themselves, because they know that getting good work done isnt about obsessively and unwaveringly adhering to a productive task for every second between the time they walk in the door and retire for the evening. Its about finding a balance that will allow them to get their work done efficiently by giving themselves time-outs throughout the day to pause and regroup.

Everyone wastes time sometimes

There is no shortage of respectable, forgivable reasons to slow down at work. Smart workers know that from time to time, looking busy in the absence of a heavy workload is better than facing the inevitable avalanche that will fall upon a naive worker that complains about downtime.

They also know that taking a break—and not boasting about the fact that theyre actually IM-ing with a friend or watching 80s videos on YouTube—is not only not against the rules, many states have carved out laws protecting this right.

But it doesnt stop a common workplace perception that slacking is more prevalent among younger, Generation X and Generation Y employees.

"Ive read that its more common to associate this behavior with the younger generation who may feel that they have it all because theyve come from a more favorable job market. This generation can be harder to motivate, and they might have less of a work ethic," Gini Graham Scott, author and workplace expert, told eWEEK.

Others argue, however, that what can be seen as lackadaisical work from a younger group of workers is actually just reflective of a differing approach to their jobs.

"Employers have to lose these perceptions that Generation Y is the slacker generation. You come across slackers in every age group. Younger workers just may have a different thought process, and differing definitions of success," said Jim Lanzalotto, vice president of strategy and marketing at Yoh Services, a provider of talent and outsourcing services based in Philadelphia.

Your company expects a little lazing around

Most businesses dont consider workers that take extended lunches from time to time or make personal phone calls time-wasters. In fact, they barely want to know about it unless its getting in the way of work progress.

Click here to read about why Gen X may struggle to fill baby boomers shoes.

A salary.com poll of human resources managers found that employers are expecting workers to waste an hour each day, on top of their lunch break, though not everyone finds comfort in these results.

"It sounds a little defeatist to me," said Lanzalotto. "In the end, if you treat people like professionals, theyll work like professionals. But the key is to manage the exceptions to the detriment of the company. Do you have the right people working for you, and are you choosing them well?"

While some organizations are idling into their salary structure, others go a step further and even praise the occasional time-waster. Mingling with co-workers, enhancing a feeling of community, exchanging ideas and discussing, even casually, work projects is good for the creative flow, and therefore good for business.

Next Page: Managing the exceptions.

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"A lot of folks are valuing free time more than ever before. People expect three weeks vacation, something that in many companies, you wont get before your third year. Theres a big difference in candidates today, and they want to perceive that they can be in control in the workplace, and that someone will value their opinions," said Lanzalotto.

In labor markets as tight as the current one in IT, companies have begun putting an added focus on retention tactics—perks that will make a job more appealing for a professional who can take their pick of places to spend their workday.

A company that doesnt mind their employees taking a long break or a day off after a big project is completed will be viewed as more worker-friendly and embracing of work-life balance than those who come down harshly on such matters.

Managing the exceptions

In her book, "A Survival Guide to Managing Employees from Hell: Handling Idiots, Whiners, Slackers, And Other Workplace Demons," Gini Graham Scott presents advice to managers about what to do when saddled with "problem" employees of all varieties.

From employees who are impossible because they are clueless or incompetent, to those that goof off too much, get angry too frequently, or are constantly saddled with personal or emotional problems, she feels that knowing which type of problem worker is being dealt with can help guide a management approach.

Click here for a guide to understanding Generation Y.

"You need different strategies for dealing with different types of people. A good one is to try to sit down with the person and find out why this is going on. Try to deal with it on an individual level and find out whether they dont like their work, whether theyre a bad fit for the office or whether they are overwhelmed with person problems," said Scott.

While an approach should be as gentle as possible, Scott considers it essential to set limits before workplace morale is affected by a single slacker.

"Talk to them as soon as you become aware of this behavior to try to get them out of the pattern. Initially you might have gentle talk, but if the behavior continues, their work is falling behind or their results are lacking, you must intervene before it affects the whole workplace," said Scott.

Lanzalottos management approach differs slightly: "You need to manage the exceptions."

"If you have an A player on your team that works their butts off all the time but when the holidays come around, shops online a bit during the day, you might let it go. But if you have someone who plays Solitaire nine hours a day and everyone complains about them and you dont deal with it, it becomes a morale issue," said Lanzalotto.

Still, the toughest cases, and the ones that show the most of what managers are made of, Lanzalotto argues, are the ones in which a once top-notch employees work has slipped.

"Employees who have checked out are some of the biggest challenges, high-performance players who lose their juices. If a manager knows theyre going through a rough patch and lends support, the person will probably appreciate the support theyve been given. It just might be the boost that they need."

Check out eWEEK.coms for the latest news, analysis and commentary on careers for IT professionals.

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