HR Policies & Procedures

How to Get Employees to Goof Off Less at Work

Have you ever been frustrated to see how much time employees spend doing things that are not work related while on the clock? Or, perhaps the organization has a renewed focus on productivity, and you’ve been enlisted to help with brainstorming process or policy changes that could help? An area of concern for employers analyzing productivity is how much time is spent “goofing off” while at work.

Reducing employee time spent “goofing off” is probably a reasonable goal. But the idea of “goofing off” is probably not the main issue—the real issue is productivity loss. That productivity loss may come from a variety of employee activities, such as spending excessive of time talking about nonwork things with coworkers, doing personal things like browsing online articles or social media, or even taking care of personal errands (like buying gifts online or spending time away from work without taking paid time off (PTO)). It could also come in the form of frequent personal calls and texts. Regardless of the specific activity, the concern is that too much time is being spent not working.

For employers, this topic can be tricky. Few employees would be happy in an environment where they feel that not a single minute of personal time is acceptable—people are social by nature, and the ability to socialize both online and offline is important to happiness and satisfaction. Additionally, frequent work breaks can actually increase productivity. Employees need time to recharge and time to take breaks, and that usually includes time spent at work doing nonwork things. On top of all of that, if employees have a little flexibility in handling some personal issues during working hours, they’ll be less likely to remain distracted by these issues when they are working later.

The key for employers is to find an appropriate balance. If it’s agreed that some miscellaneous time spent doing nonwork activities is not only tolerable but also desirable, these activities do not need to be eliminated—they simply must be kept to a reasonable level. Here are some ways that employees can influence how much time employees spend on these types of activities:

  • Ensure that employees have job responsibilities that they find challenging and rewarding. Many employees waste time at work simply because they’re bored. The employer can be proactive and try to match employees with the right level of responsibility and overall workload.
  • Create work processes that allow employees to be efficient. For example, consider implementing procedures to follow with employee meetings (i.e., every meeting must have an agenda and must stick to the original time slot). By doing things that promote efficiency, this creates a culture in which employees will be empowered to push for efficiencies in other areas.
  • Invest in good tools for employees. If employees are frustrated at work, or even if they’re overworked, they may be more likely to need to take (too many) breaks and feel more justified in doing so. Conversely, giving employees good tools to enhance productivity can allow them not only to be more efficient but also to have a greater sense of satisfaction because the employer invests in its employees and cares about how well things get done. Likewise, good tools can increase productivity and can offset some of the otherwise “wasted” time.
  • Be careful not to be too restrictive. Though it may seem simple to just make a policy that makes it a disciplinary matter when employees are caught wasting time at work, this can actually be counterproductive. Not only may it lead to resentment but it could also end up creating a situation in which the employees feel as though their contributions are not valued, and as such, they’ll not have any incentive to put in any extra effort. Productivity (and morale) may decrease overall in this scenario, even if obvious time wasting decreases.
  • Consider implementing more flexible working arrangements whenever possible. When employees have options that allow them to handle the demands of their personal life at the most opportune time, they’re less likely to be distracted when they’re working. They’re also less likely to be sneaking in personal calls if they have the flexibility to handle such issues without causing problems. Flexible working arrangements might include things like allowing employees to work nonstandard hours (which could allow for personal matters to be handled at better time of day) or allowing employees to make up time taken away from work on other days.
  • Have incentive programs in place that give rewards for performance. When employees feel they’re being appreciated and recognized for their efforts—whether monetarily or otherwise—they’re more likely to continue those efforts. Consider including “stretch” goals that give additional incentives to go above and beyond the required levels.
  • Ensure employees know where their role fits compared to the big-picture organizational goals. If the employee can clearly see his or her role and how it impacts the bottom line (directly or indirectly), he or she will be more likely to spend spare time on activities that work toward achieving the big-picture goals instead of just wasting time. The employee will feel that his or her contributions make a difference.

Have you ever tried to combat a situation in which employees are spending too much time on nonwork activities? What else did you try? What worked and what didn’t?

  • Great article! As you mention, a certain degree of goofing off is good. I’d add the (probably obvious) point of making sure there’s frequent dialog between workers and managers so expectations are already known. If an employee is showing a tendency to goof off excessively, it’s better to talk about it early before it becomes an ingrained habit. Then you risk alienation and resentment. But to have those conversations in a non-confrontational way, it’s best if there’s some sort of relationship and trust.