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I'm the manager of IT department in my company. One of direct reports is sometimes browsing the web and reading articles instead of working.

His performance is suffering and the project is behind the schedule, and I don't know the reason for this behavior (maybe I've just become too sensitive about him).

What should I do about it?

I don't want him to feel micromanaged all the time and I want to help him become interested in work and increase his performance.

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    How can you tell what your colleague is doing? Are you creeping around and checking? Or is it just a feeling? Presumably when you are doing this you are not doing your own work...? – RedSonja Jul 13 at 5:25
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    @RedSonja Unless someone has a private office (which most people don't) most people know when others are browsing the web or not. Regardless, this isn't just a colleague, it's a subordinate, so it's reasonable to assume OP pops by the person's desk multiple times a day for various things. – corsiKa Jul 13 at 7:39
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    Browsing the web can be perfectly fine. For example, for me when I'm stuck on a problem or don't have a clear solution, I spend time doing "useless" stuff while my mind churns away at the problem subconsciously and when I switch back to the IDE I have a plan on how to proceed. How do you measure his performance? Is maybe his performance the same, but the time estimations are overly optimistic and he doesn't hit the milestones on time? – Morfildur Jul 13 at 8:23
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    What kind of articles does he read? If it is (for example) the wikipage on Red-Black Trees it is still directly related to his job (and you should raise his paycheck ...) – Basile Starynkevitch Jul 13 at 14:57
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    How long has he reported to you? Are you asking because his behavior changed recently, or has he been browsing the web since he started working for you? A bit more background on the working relationship between you two would be beneficial. – Dave White Jul 13 at 16:17
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The problem here is not the web browsing, but that his work output is not satisfactory.

You need to address this like any other performance issue: set clear expectations and hold them accountable. For example, agree on what you expect to be done by Friday and get them to commit to it. If he delivers, all good, just keep doing this. If he does not, ask them why and figure out what you both can do about it. Maybe he needs to spend less time web browsing, maybe it's something else entirely.

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    Easier said than done: As l0b0 says in his answer, accurate estimates are impossible, and I'd like to add as a corollary: reasonably accurate estimates are hard. If the developer has lots of tasks that can take between 1 day and 1 week, how should I know what will be done by Friday? My expectation is that the dev takes about the time that a reasonably efficient dev would need to complete the task, but I haven't found any way to measure that yet (without having another dev (or myself) doing the same work just to be able to compare the outcome). – Heinzi Jul 13 at 10:07
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    @Heinzi That's why it's important to understand why they didn't deliver. Maybe there's a good reason, maybe there isn't. If they continually fail to deliver, you know where the issue is. Also, it's good to do estimates together as a team in sprint planning, so it's not just down to the dev's own estimation skill or lack thereof. – lambshaanxy Jul 13 at 12:10
  • @lambshaanxy Precisely! If he can complete his tasks and have time to 'browse the web' you might need to have another conversation about setting his output within timeframes more aggressively. This is an opportunity for him, not a mark against him and you should try to communicate it this way - perhaps you have an outstanding contributor on your hands! – Pete855217 Jul 14 at 12:54
  • Maybe he needs to spend less time web browsing, maybe it's something else entirely. That's why it's a good idea that OP provides more background, although I note they have not interacted with this page since they asked the question. – Dave White Jul 14 at 16:47
98

This is one of the cursed problems of IT:

  1. Accurate estimates are impossible; they are more of an expression of uncertainty. Holding people accountable for their own estimates can lead to overinflation of estimates. Delegating estimation to someone not doing the work is going to lead to stress and suboptimal solutions, like programming to a spec rather than to the intention, which will then have to be reworked to be useful. Any estimates should be worked out in concert, so that the developers have an idea exactly how much they are expected to do per task. Just saying "it should do X" is not useful, because X can be done in an infinite number of ways, most of which are far from ideal.
  2. Accurate performance measurements are impossible. Unless their performance is literally zero for long stretches of time I wouldn't trust a personal assessment of someone else's productivity.
  3. Worker satisfaction influences their productivity. If this person feels under- or overqualified to do this work they will be overwhelmed or bored, respectively.
  4. Private life influences productivity. That's just a fact of life. They might be going through a tough time.
  5. Are you sure the things they read online are irrelevant? If so, they are probably incredibly stressed out at the amount of surveillance. If not, what's the problem?
  6. There is no silver bullet. Talk to them with an open mind. What are the main blockers, programmatic, organizational or otherwise? How can you help?
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    I think you're making IT sound like more of a special snowflake than it is: there are high performers and low performers in this field as well, and despite variance on single tasks, as a manager it's not terribly difficult to find out who's who over time. But your last point is key: figure out the cause, not the symptom. – lambshaanxy Jul 13 at 4:52
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    "Are you sure the things they read online are irrelevant?" Might be checking Stack Exchange, after all. – RedSonja Jul 13 at 4:54
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    After 10 years in IT, I can say it's not just IT with these problems. My wife just started a business clearing out estates when people pass away, and we run into each of these problems there, too. It's... uncanny... how often I find an exact parallel between trying to plan a sprint full of features and trying to help her get antique dressers in and out of her warehouse! – corsiKa Jul 13 at 7:41
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    @Chris "people who just do the minimal possible effort to collect a paycheck without getting fired" -- this sounds like the rational response of a utility-maximizing agent, though, if they aren't incentivized to do more. Would you expect a long-established vendor to give you free extra services/goods all the time if they didn't have the prospect of getting more business (or fear of you switching to a competitor)? People become clock-punchers when there's no reward for doing more. Offer a raise, or bonus, or recognition for exceptional work, and it changes quick. – Tiercelet Jul 13 at 13:59
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    @Chris In my experience there is a percentage of employers who just pay the minimum possible amount agreed by the contract to avoid employee walk-outs or lawsuits, and no matter what you do they won't change this behavior. – TessellatingHeckler Jul 14 at 9:18
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You need to have a conversation.

If there is any doubt about in your mind about this situation, you need to start by giving your colleague the benefit of it.

Ask about what you have seen, and see if they have an explanation.

Why?

A manager, you can see reduced productivity for several reasons:

  1. your staff are not working the hours that they should
  2. your team are putting in the hours but on the wrong thing
  3. your people are working on the right thing, but there is a knotty problem reducing their productivity
  4. they are being productive but the things they're getting done aren't obvious to you, their manager.

You've said that you "feel" that (1) is likely. If I were this person's manager, I'd want to verify this assumption before "setting expectations".

Assuming (1) is correct, you need to dig a little deeper. Why has productivity dropped off? Again, there are many possibilities. Some examples:

  • Your colleague is stuck on a hard problem, but is shy about asking for help
  • they are being bullied by another team member, and are finding it difficult to concentrate
  • they're having problems at home
  • they're staying up late playing video games
  • they don't understand what's expected if them

...and many others.

The point is, each of these should elicit a different behaviour from you as their manager.

  • If the problem is expectations, for example, then setting expectations is going to help.
  • If it is something else, like problems at home, then re-stating what you want from them may not help very much, and could even make the situation worse if you're adding to their woes.

In the second case, cutting your colleague a little slack in the short term could do wonders for you over the long-hall.

Take the wrong action now, and you stand to loose someone who has shown they can be a good employee in the past. Take the right action, and you stand to gain loyalty and hard-work in the long run.

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    This. So much this. Speculation will not help, the root cause must be unearthed and dealt with. – Matthieu M. Jul 13 at 9:27
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I want to clear up some common misconceptions that you seem to believe:

  1. It's impossible for a software developer to stay focused on programming for 8 hours per day. For most developers, you should probably count yourself quite lucky if they can even reach half of that on a consistent, day by day basis. Studies and surveys have found that software developers generally are only able to spend about 2-3 hours per day actually writing code. This is partially due to programmers having non-programming tasks like meetings, emails, phone calls, solving problems with their work environment; and partially due to programming being an extremely cerebral task that generally exhausts the developer if they stay focused on it for prolonged periods of time.
  2. Even if a good manager can remove all the non-programming tasks from the programmer's workload, a programmer can't spend 8 hours per day writing code, even if they wanted to. Any nontrivial program eventually has a bug that needs to be solved. To solve these bugs, programmers need to spend time researching what causes the bug: Googling error codes, reading documentation, browsing blog archives of people who encountered the bug and found a fix, creating questions on Stack Overflow,... Expecting a programmer to write code the entire day is like expecting an action hero movie to shoot a bad guy every shot.
  3. Even if a programmer somehow doesn't encounter any bugs for an entire day, there's still a physical limit to how much they can do. Again, that's related to the 1st bullet point above. A programmer does his best work while in "The Zone", a mental state of extreme focus and concentration that's found in creative jobs, but also among athletes. While in The Zone, a developer is intensely focused on their program, weaving delicate webs of mental connections that lead the developer to the best solution. Any interruption while in The Zone, regardless of how short or trivial, destroys this delicate web and leaves the programmer stranded in an island of confusion.
    The big problem is that there are physical limits to how much time a developer can spend in the zone. Generally this is about 2 hours per day, if lucky. Delevopers may be able to borrow Zone time from the future, but generally there's a conversion rate that means every extra hour spent in the zone today can lead up to an entire following day of being an unproductive zombie unable to get into the zone. There are developers that can stay in the zone for longer, but these are rare.
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  • "Studies and surveys have found that software developers generally are only able to spend about 2-3 hours per day actually writing code." <= Holy shit! And, I thought I was slacker. – Nosajimiki Jul 15 at 13:32
  • @Nosajimiki for some sources: thriveglobal.com/stories/…; blog.amazingmarvin.com/…; consciouscompanymedia.com/workplace-culture/…; Note that A) these articles are about general workers, not about programmers specifically, and B) these also include time spent goofing off, which I must have missed when first reading these articles. – Nzall Jul 15 at 14:19
  • You forgot how open plan offices actively prevent entering the (productivity) zone (hopefully a thing of the past due to current events). – Peter Mortensen Jul 16 at 16:27
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What is hard as a manager is keeping your team members motivated. If they are motivated, they will make their best every day.

In this case, I would discuss with him getting more information about how he feels these days, and trying to know what makes him less motivated than before. I think the best way to lead your team is to know deeply how the members are doing, what they don’t like, and what they do like.

Ideally, you would trust them all, and you would not have to control them. This idea comes from the freedom-form company theory by Isaac Getz, among others.

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    Agree because for all the manager knows this worker has had some significant life changing event with home/family but yes, it could also be just an at work cause. – HenryM Jul 12 at 23:44
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One thing to look out for is to see if there is something that is frustrating this worker's efforts. If he feels unable to progress on an issue, he might get bored from a lack of anything to do and go out for some entertainment.

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    Make sure your employee; knows what to do; has the tools to do it; has the expertise to do it; has someone to ask if any of these is missing. – RedSonja Jul 13 at 4:56
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    Which can be neatly summarized as, "managers doing their jobs". – EvilSnack Jul 13 at 17:25
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Browsing the Internet at work is not inherently a bad thing

Many people learn about emerging technologies through social media like twitter , they learn how to solve problems through Q/A sites like: How should I deal with a subordinate who is distracted and not performing well?, even reading web comics like xkcd.com can be quite educational and a much needed emotional reset similar to taking a smoke break, but potentially more productive.

In most cases when an IT worker is "wasting time on the web" at work it is not that they are reading articles that is the problem but how much.

In many cases, it also turns out that the perceived problem is that people are animals of habit. You may always have enough downtime at a certain time of day to check on him which just so happens to be when he also has a bit of down time to read articles; so, just because you routinely "catch him in the act" does not mean that that is what he is normally doing. If instead you should be looking at his projects: how much he is backlogged, how many hours a day he is devoting to tasks, and are those tasks are taking as long as they should.

Don't address the Problem, address the Solution

The best way to do this is making your IT department use some manner of CRM for tracking the work they do. Normally CRMs are used for tracking the work consulting firms do for outside companies, but even if this is an internal IT department, a CRM will help them organize information about your infrastructure, track projects statuses, and most importantly as far as your question is concerned: log how much work he is actually getting done.

Then if the data shows he is in fact slacking, instead of trying to confront him about something that may or may not really be a problem, you can talk to about how you need him to meet measurable data points. So your conversation might sound like, "Arjun, I noticed you have a lot of projects left open, I need to you to step it up and get your queue back down to a manageable size." or "I noticed you spent 3 hours yesterday on task that only takes Kabir or Ananya 1 hour. I need you to speed those up, and if you're not familiar with how to do it, I need you to get with one of them to see how you can do it better."

Here you are setting goals instead of fence posts, he will know if he needs to stop spending so much time browsing to reach his goals, then he can find the balance that makes the most sense for him. The important caveat to remember though is that IT is a mental task. It is emotionally and psychologically draining; so, while a CRM is good for tracking your projects, make sure to use it as a means to set goals and stay motivated, and not to let it degrade to the knife you hold above thier heads, because if anything drives an IT guy be less productive, it is feeling like they have goals they can not meet.

As for goal setting: There is a metic often used by sales managers that states that all minimum goals should be meet 80% of the time. What this does is it keeps your minimum goals hard enough to motivate them to do what it right, but easy enough that people don't loose hope or feel like they need to cheat the system to reach them. Goals should also not be a moving target. Once you feel you have a good gauge on what your people can do, set a goal and see how it works for at least 6 months before revisiting it.

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How about transferring him to sales? (Only partially joking.)

EDIT: (Sigh) all right, it's because this guy seems like all talk and no walk, and doesn't have the concentration necessary to make it as an IT developer. But in sales, all they do is talk.

How is it I come up with the obviously best answers but get voted down? I guess people don't appreciate real answers.

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    without an explanation, this answer may become useless in case if someone else posts an opposite opinion. For example, if someone posts a claim like "Don't ever think about transferring him to sales", how would this answer help reader to pick of two opposing opinions? Consider editing it into a better shape, to meet How to Answer guidelines – gnat Jul 13 at 19:02
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    @TheoreticalMinimum This isn't a comedy or satirical site. – Player One Jul 14 at 9:40
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    "I guess people don't appreciate real answers." People do appreciate real answers, and this definitely isn't one. It makes a far reaching assumption that probably doesn't apply. Most programmers have days, or even weeks, where they're completely burnt out and need to do "something else" for a while. Simply assuming this person would rather be in sales without talking to them is a pretty harsh conclusion. – computercarguy Jul 15 at 16:31
  • @computercarguy No one said he'd RATHER be in sales. But that's where he could do the least damage. – Jennifer Jul 20 at 13:52
  • @Jennifer, he'd do the least damage in sales? Really? Sales is where he could easily make the most damage. Sales is a public facing role where he could "poison the well" for a lot of clients. He could either unintentionally say all kinds of things to harm the company and it's reputation in sales. And if he was moved there against his will, he could become disgruntled, and then there's all sorts of havoc he could make. Sales is a horrible place for this person. – computercarguy Jul 20 at 15:38
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If you see something you perceive to be an issue you investigate and proactively mitigate against it.

In this case you're not even sure, so you have a couple of recourse's. Firewall the internet connection (it probably is already) and monitor usage at least broadly, on top of that you can restrict access to sites if you feel the need.

Almost all my clients have had to block social media like YouTube and Facebook to increase productivity. Some have outright blocked them, others allow management access, or time limited access, still others allow all web traffic but monitor usage.

Blocking proactively eliminates the surfing as a problem symptom, monitoring makes it easy to identify what is actually happening. I've had a client who's total web traffic was over 90% YouTube and Facebook.

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    downvoted for firewall advice – NoSenseEtAl Jul 13 at 1:09
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    @Peter It would be effective in blocking web browsing, but it's unlikely to solve the performance issue. – lambshaanxy Jul 13 at 12:11
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    This would just make this person switch to playing with his phone or something – ChatterOne Jul 13 at 13:24
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    I have lost count of how many times a web blocker intended to “help productivity” prevented me from getting to pages with technical information directly related to my job. – VGR Jul 13 at 14:17
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    -1 You can't solve human problems using tech alone. – Ave Jul 14 at 21:41

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