The company I work for has no written policy against using company time for personal communications and entertainment (Facebook, Skype, Youtube, etc.). It is expected that everyone balances their use in a professional way in order to do their work.

One or two specific employees I manage spend a lot of time on Facebook and Skype, chatting with friends, or shopping online, managing their personal finances or home matters while at work. I observe that if I give them a deadline for 5 PM, they will work at a random pace (without focus) until 3 PM and then rush their assignments until 5 PM so they can leave on time.

Although they tend to meet their deadlines and perform fine, I am concerned that they watch the clock rather than try to contribute with high quality and added value. And most of the time, they just do exactly what is written in the instructions, and if I ask anything like "Didn't you think that adding this here would have made it even better?" they answer "But that was not written in the instructions!".

My top employees work all the time when they are in the office, maybe check personal e-mails just once a day, and if they finish long before the deadline, they come and ask for more work or, even better, spend the remaining time to improve previous projects, help others, or on other work-related things. They don't only follow the instructions for the instructions' sake but actually do what will help the company even if that isn't written in the instructions.

My goal is to motivate the clock-watching employees to the same level of commitment without resorting to any kind of formal procedure (Part of the reason is that they do well - but I personally would like them to do greater, to be proactive and bring energy to the team, etc.).

What strategies can I try to turn my goal into reality?

  • 2
    What type of work is it? If anything, it sounds like you're overstaffed or need a "when you have free time" bucket where you store projects that should be done when people have free time. Letting people be on facebook because there is nothing else to do sounds terrible.
    – timpone
    Commented Feb 15, 2014 at 21:47
  • The work is in the field of promotions/advertising. There are assignments based on specific client-driven deadlines, but also higher level work to analyze results, improve previous initiatives, maintain clients, or even find new clients, etc. Often, what I tell them is "If you have time once you finish Task XYZ by deadline, please see what you can do to improve our project ABC"
    – RajBarge
    Commented Feb 16, 2014 at 1:04
  • 1
    "If you have time once you finish Task XYZ" -- this is spoken as optional and not accountable. Tell them to work on that next, and if task 1 is due by 5pm, tell them you want a detailed summary of possible options for Project ABC by 2pm the next day. Even if ABC is a backburner task, present it as if it is high priority somehow. Give them another task at 10am the next day, keep their pipeline full.
    – Miro
    Commented Feb 16, 2014 at 4:31
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    Are you guys saying that I need to put in instructions every possible scenario if you wish to practice command and control management (joelonsoftware.com/items/2006/08/08.html) then yes. If you don't want to work like this, yet this is all your employees respond to then you need to ask why. If staff are afraid to do anything else, then this suggests a problem with business culture. Perhaps people have been blamed in the past when they've not followed instructions exactly? Perhaps its impossible for them to guess how to prioritise things due to management changing on a whim?
    – Rob Moir
    Commented Feb 16, 2014 at 22:42
  • 1
    Are your programmers working hard? These Facebook users sound pretty smart to me.
    – user12818
    Commented Feb 18, 2014 at 17:57

6 Answers 6


I have faced this myself before and while you may not like to hear this, your ability to control it is quite small. As you've seen, these employees can produce a lot when you ask it of them, but they don't ask it of themselves. You have three choices:

  • fire them and replace them with people who love this work.
  • make this work easier to love: help them connect with the reason for the work and its place in the world.
  • manage them more: more deadlines, more checking on them, more assigning work to them.

I suspect most people would advise the first or the last approach. The first is the easiest and in many cases the right thing to do. I have spent literally years trying to make someone show initiative, value my money, and care more - essentially the third bullet. It's exhausting and not a lot of fun, and not very lucrative either. If it's expensive for you to acquire replacement employees then you may have a motivation to try to improve the ones you have.

Start by just assigning them more - they clearly can do more and whether they ask for it or not, give it to them. Make sure that what they deliver is appreciated. Make sure everyone knows why they do these things and how it brings money to the company. Do not start using scoreboards, bonuses, or any system that can be gamed. You want their motivation to come from inside. Push work on to them instead of waiting for them to pull it. Whenever they say "that wasn't in the instructions" have them update the instructions on the spot so it will be there next time.

Some of them will quit. They like being able to goof around on Facebook or whatever. Some of them will step up. At least you won't be converting your hard workers into not so hard workers. But stop paying people not to care. And don't wait too long to realize you can't always make people care.

  • 1
    Isn't this an opinion rather than an objective answer?
    – RajBarge
    Commented Feb 16, 2014 at 1:11
  • 2
    @RajBarge It is based on "specific expertise". Commented Feb 16, 2014 at 2:16
  • 14
    "Isn't this an opinion rather than an objective answer? " -- @RajBarge if you're expecting to be told about some magical mental button to press that will ensure all your employees keep their noses to the grindstone without fail then your employees are not the problem. This is a good answer.
    – Rob Moir
    Commented Feb 16, 2014 at 12:49

It sounds to me as though there is a problem with your expectations that precedes the problem with their motivation. Your first strategies should be ways to address that.

You don't expect very much of these employees. To be precise, you expect more of them than you're getting, but you do so quietly. Your quiet frustration is no use to them and will not change their behavior. You say you don't want to resort to a formal procedure, but you must decide what your expectations are and communicate them to the employees. So, if these employees need detailed instruction then give it to them. And instruct them how you want them to behave, not the bare minimum you'll accept.

When you get that far, it would not be fair just to say, "I want you to show more initiative and be more committed". That is not a specific measurable goal. Neither is it fair to say, "balance Facebook use in a professional way" unless you're prepared to give guidance what is and isn't reasonable (and clearly you think their current level of use isn't reasonable). You also cannot expect everyone to invent work for themselves and review past projects all the time - some people can, but you must be prepared as a manager to give those who need detailed instructions enough work to occupy their time.

if I ask anything like "Didn't you think that adding this here would have made it even better?" they answer "But that was not written in the instructions!".

Asking someone whether they thought of something is not the same as telling them that part of their job is to think of it and do it. Always be clear when giving instructions, that you are giving instructions. Be polite of course, but do not be indirect. It may be obvious to you that you're just being diplomatic, I promise you that the same is not always obvious to the person you're being diplomatic with. To them it genuinely might just sound as if they were asked to do one thing and then asked why they didn't do something different. Confusing.

If it comes down to it, write down in the instructions that you want them to give their opinion whether there is anything that could be added to make the output better. Then at least you can work out whether they thought of the same thing you asked them about, but decided not to do it, or if they just aren't very imaginative/confident/well-informed, or whatever else it takes to suggest improvements to their instructions.

Junior employees in particular don't automatically know how to judge when they should question the instructions they're given and when they should assume the person who write them knows best and follow them to the letter. Once those patterns are established, they stick.

If their performance is "fine" despite you giving them an amount of work for the day that they can complete in 2 hours between 3pm and 5pm, then you are not challenging them and you're not taking advantage of their capacity, but you are creating a pattern for them to fall into. Of course they aren't motivated.

Either give them a day's worth of work every day, or give them their usual 2 hours work at 9am and tell them to do as much of it as they can by 11. Then they have the opportunity to get themselves a thumbs-up at 11 by having it substantially finished, and an opportunity for even more recognition when you ask them at 11 how they can improve on what they already have. Also give feedback at 11 on what they're doing as they're doing it, before the deadline, instead of only in retrospect. All these things will make it easier for them to get motivated.

Once you establish your new expectations, you may find that you don't need to manage them very closely in order for them to continue in the same way: get their task done, deliver it, and only check Facebook while they're waiting for more work to arrive. Then you can work on getting them to show some initiative during that time instead of checking Facebook at all...

Now, it's possible that these people fundamentally want to get away with doing the minimum work they can, and they don't care about your expectations as long as they don't get fired. It's also possible that they just don't feel like the job is asking for their full attention and commitment, and will give those things when they're demanded. You will not find out which until you sort out your side of the equation.

You said in comments:

I personally grew up with an attitude that if I have to focus on something, everything else has to wait. It's discipline, and discipline helps me focus. Why can't others just follow that simple principle?

Others are not you, and you cannot manage them by expecting them to have the same attitude you grew up with, or behave as you would. The closest you can come is to state your principles and require them to follow them -- that is to say, tell them not to do (so much) personal stuff at work, and give them something productive to do instead. But normally you don't need to spell out your personal path to self-discipline, because the techniques by which each employee stays focused matter a heck of a lot less than whether they feel they need to be focused in order to do what's expected of them.

Bear in mind also that different people are productive under different conditions. If you can focus on one task indefinitely to the exclusion of all else, then good for you. Others do not share your superpower. To them it is not a simple principle, it is a physical impossibility.

Likewise there are people who clear their to-do list and then take a break, and there are people who wait until their to-do list is urgent and then do it. Long-term you can talk about attitudes and discipline, but the easiest way to make the latter behave like the former is to set shorter deadlines ;-)

  • 1
    Steve Jessop, thanks for the very detailed answer. I feel this reflects most what is going on with the two employees - except that they are not at all junior (one of them is the most senior on the team). In fact, my junior employees are the proactive top performers! My concern with your suggestion is that it might lead towards micromanaging rather than helping them grow and transfering ownership (which is my ultimate goal). Having said all this my gut instinct is that they know very well "what" to do (e.g. in my comment to 3CPO) but aren't doing it just because they are distracted/demotivated.
    – RajBarge
    Commented Feb 16, 2014 at 18:19
  • @RajBarge: First get them working properly, then give them ownership of it. Even if your gut instinct is correct (which you can confirm as I've said above), and they are perfectly capable of thinking of more things to do, it's clear that they won't do them with their working day structured as it is. And it seems to me that it's too easy for you to restructure their day directly, to be worth messing around hoping that by making them more motivated or disciplined in a general way, that they'll do it entirely by themselves :-) Commented Feb 16, 2014 at 20:17
  • 1
    Oh, and micromanagement is bad long-term, but there's nothing wrong with showing someone what you want/expect in detail a few times before letting them manage it themselves. If you do all these things and you find that they work properly on days you're hovering over them and go straight bad to old habits when you aren't, then you'd be micromanaging and it's not sustainable. Then you may have to either use them solely for straightforward tasks requiring no initiative (and give them more of them each day!) or else use formal proceedings to address the fact they aren't doing as you've asked them. Commented Feb 16, 2014 at 20:22
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    Some people need to be micromanaged and it is not bad to do so when they have shown they cannot manage themselves. Very few people actually are good at self management and to rely on that as a mangement technique is to be an incomptetent manager. YOU have to manage people the way they need to be manged to get the most work done, not like some airy-fairy, "everyone will be motivated on their own" pipe-dream.
    – HLGEM
    Commented Feb 16, 2014 at 20:59

Sometimes staff can feel lost and disorientated at work. If they lose sight of their purpose it is very difficult to concentrate on work. Potential distractions can de-rail their focus at every turn. Your staff should know why they are important to your organization , because an employee's morale is positively influenced by knowing that his or her work is meaningful.

All employees like to have their hard work acknowledged by their bosses, try to acknowledge their acievements whenever possible.

  • 1
    If someone is goofing around on Facebook all day, they aren't working hard. How do you acknowledge hard work when there is no hard work to acknowledge?
    – jmort253
    Commented Feb 15, 2014 at 20:58
  • @jmort253: sounds like they're working pretty hard between 3 and 5. Obviously that's not enough, but the questioner acknowledges that the work they do isn't bad. Commented Feb 16, 2014 at 17:21

At first initial reading of your comment I was surprised that this was a problem as they are completing their tasks on time, and per your instructions. At the basic level, that is their job. If any of this personal stuff was interfering, then the story would be different.

On the other hand, I understand if they are not going above and beyond. However, I think you need to look at it less about them not spending time on Facebook and the like, and more about getting them to produce higher quality or more work. Which are you actually more concerned about, that they are on facebook or not producing more? If they really did take the entire day to meet the 5pm deadline, would the problem still exist?

In terms of work environment, I don't think you'll get more out of them by banning these personal things or making that the issue. People tend to do that when they aren't engaged. I would suggest trying to find more engaging work, with more pressure to complete. If possible, use larger multi-day projects that give more responsibility, such that they take more pride in the task. If you are giving 5 days and they do it in the last 2, give them just 3 days next time. Or perhaps, just have a mid-way checkpoint where they present to the team where they stand so that they feel more accountable for progress.

However, I wouldn't push them with the sole intent that they are so busy they couldn't possibly have time to do anything else. Your motivations are wrong if that is the goal. You want to encourage positive results, not discourage what they do in between. That's micromanaging. And like most businesses, you'll inevitably reach a point where there is a slow point, and must realize there is nothing you can do sometimes to prevent these occasional personal things.

  • Well, I feel there is a correlation between Facebook/personal stuff and lack of motivation. I personally grew up with an attitude that if I have to focus on something, everything else has to wait. It's discipline, and discipline helps me focus. Why can't others just follow that simple principle? If you can't access or think of Facebook, then you have no choice but to try and work - right? - Aside from that, you are right: they do their tasks. But that is not the end of the story, not in my kind of profession. Tasks here are "basic level" guidelines, and the rest is up to their initiative.
    – RajBarge
    Commented Feb 16, 2014 at 1:09

You have correctly identified the problem as your responsibility. As a manager you have control over personnel, job content, and motivation.

In your example, you don't have a quantity problem because the workers are doing the assigned work. You have a quality problem because the workers are interpreting your instructions in the way that makes the job easiest. You could call it "willing only to go the least number of miles." You seem pretty sure that you don't have a skills problem, but you could be wrong.

I have a formula for underperforming subordinates. I call them in and ask, "Why don't you give a damn about timekeeping/deadlines/quality/whatever, and what can I do to change your mind?"

Most of the time you won't walk out of there five minutes later with a performance improvement undertaking attested by a notary public, but you will get these results:

  • The employee will know that you are not perfectly satisfied with their work. This may or may not shake up their complacency, depending on the person.

  • The employee will know that you are willing to change the rules to get the benefit you want.

  • You will know if you have identified the problem correctly.

  • "Why don't you give a damn about timekeeping/deadlines/quality/whatever, and what can I do to change your mind?" That sounds confrontational. How well does that work when employees do give about $whatever yet happen to have a different interpretation of it to yours? ...I know I'd lose any respect for a manager who asked me that question when my answer was, for example: "I do care about deadlines, yet I care more about quality, and I can't meet the deadlines without compromising quality, which I'm not willing to do, as I'm told that's the most important part of my job"...
    – Rob Moir
    Commented Feb 16, 2014 at 15:07
  • 1
    @RobM: I agree it's confrontational, but it seems to me that if that question provoked the answer you give, and both sides are good-humored throughout the exchange, then it will be productive. Maybe what the management needs to do is to involve you earlier in the planning, so that your judgements on time vs. quality are accounted for and the deadlines made more realistic or more people put on projects. Maybe they'll decide quality is no longer the most important part of your job, rather you should adjust quality to fit time available. Either way the question provokes the discussion ;-) Commented Feb 16, 2014 at 17:43
  • ... the specific problem with the formulation "why don't you give a damn about X", I think, is that it presumes to know what is in another person's mind and what is important to them. There is a reasonable chance that this will not result in a good-humored exchange. I suppose that user15922 prepares the way by ensuring that their relationship with their employees is such that they can say something that on the face of it (a) looks pretty stupid if it's not true and (b) might be difficult for the employee to accept/admit even if it is true. For someone else the formula will flat fail. Commented Feb 16, 2014 at 17:47
  • Fair point @SteveJessop I suppose that "meh... will this take long, my lunch is getting cold" would be a much worse response than my example. At least my "straw man" cared...
    – Rob Moir
    Commented Feb 16, 2014 at 18:23

You need to manage their time if they will not. If the task can be done in two hours, then don't give them the whole day to do it!! You should be assigneing themm enough work that they don't have time to goof off all day. Many people don't self manage well, so stop letting them do so and start doing your job which is to see to it that they have enough work to do to fill the whole day.

If you don't have enough work for two people to do to fill the whole day, perhaps you only need one person.

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