Preface: I am working in a company where most of the employees are in their early 20s. We have a very open culture and office. This is great to have a very friendly and low-stress working environment. As a byproduct, productivity is low and almost everyone is behaving fairly unprofessionally. They don't respect deadlines, juniors don't follow instructions carefully. And a grave lack of mutual respect among many colleagues etc.

As a member of management, what can I do to find a balance between a fun and free working environment, and utter chaos. I don't want to make any dramatic change that upsets staff. I am hoping to slowly instill some more discipline.

Question: At a high level, what management principles are there that I could employ to focus staff on being more task orientated rather than recreation?


Update after five months:

Further analysis revealed the root of some of the problems. Seniors were micromanaging and under-delegating, resulting in a lack of ownership among junior staff.

We slowly turned it around with increased transparency and empowered everyone in the team to make decisions on their own. In about three months time the difference was astonishing. Almost everyone takes ownership of their work. People seem more motivated, and better yet, I don't have to work on the weekends.

I will try to post another update few months down the line.

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    It is also quite opinion based, as there are many management styles. It´s almost like asking which religion is the best ... Interesting topic though, would love it if you rephrase that. – Daniel Sep 20 '17 at 8:38
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    You might be able to get more help here if you hop into The Workplace Chat, since it's so dependent on your company's culture, goals, etc. – Erik Sep 20 '17 at 8:46
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    You mention approx. 5 areas of concern. Limiting your questions to one at a time might help. And make sure to search the site first before asking. – Jan Doggen Sep 20 '17 at 9:05
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    Yes this is pretty broad and is going to involve a lot of opinion.. but it's an interesting question and one that is common to people new to management. Would be great if we can keep this open – motosubatsu Sep 20 '17 at 9:23
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    I'd highly question the implied assumption that freedom and productivity necessarily exclude each other. It always depends on the people you have, your work culture, your product and your management style whether more freedom leads to less or more productivity. A rigid framework may prevent extreme failures, but it often also limits productivity in its own, especially if your product requires creativity and your work force values their freedom/individuality. – Darkwing Sep 20 '17 at 12:02
up vote 117 down vote accepted

At the risk of winning the oscar for stating the obvious, you need to manage your employees, you're probably going to have an uphill battle because from the sounds of it you've not been doing it for some time.

Being a manager is not about making a binary choice between being a complete pushover/doormat or a ruling with an iron fist. Your job is to ensure that the company's goals are met and the work gets done, so manage based on whether these things are happening. That is not mutually exclusive with having a friendly and low-stress working environment - you just need to be results focussed and don't sweat the minutiae of how they get achieved.

If an employee misses a deadline and you perceive it to be as a result of them goofing about then you address this with them directly and tell them that while you don't care about how they spend every minute of their time during an assigned task you do care about whether it gets done. If they are consistently missing deadlines then you address that using whatever disciplinary processes you have available, use performance evaluations and reviews, escalate to PIPs or further if required.

The flipside is if an employee does well then praise them, reward them where appropriate. Also if the team or company meets a large goal then praise everybody, the idea being that you encourage them to see the company's goals as their own. Which isn't a lie - if the company does well it can not only continue to pay them but it can pay them more as time goes on.

  • Just to add. If someone does well praise them loudly and openly. Make them brag about it. If this is company of 20-something people, make them feel special. Make them compete for the public glory :) – Pavel Janicek Sep 20 '17 at 18:01
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    @PavelJanicek I disagree. If the employee brags about it, it becomes a matter of self-centeredness, not team-consciousness, and it can start to alienate other team members from that individual. And if they are competing with each other for public glory, that also serves to divide the team. The manager should definitely praise the employee, which will make the employee feel confident and secure, but the manager (or anyone else) should be the one doing it. – Panzercrisis Sep 20 '17 at 19:47
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    Praise in public, critique in private. – Frank FYC Sep 20 '17 at 20:56
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    @JiK What that means is: When you have to praise someone, do it in public. When it is necessary to critique, don't do it in front of everyone. It doesn't mean to praise someone and then turn around and criticize him. – Iker Sep 21 '17 at 14:12
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    I think this answer assumes that all deadlines are realistic/practical/doable, when that may not necessarily be true. If a manager consistently comes up with arbitrary and unrealistic deadlines, then employees will miss them consistently -and get punished on top of it through no fault of their own. I think the answer could be improved by noting this, since OP's lack of mgmt so far may just take a turn into creating poor estimates/deadlines and causing more long-term harm. – code_dredd Sep 22 '17 at 2:53

We have a very open culture and office. This is great to have a very friendly and low-stress working environment. As a byproduct, productivity is low and almost everyone is behaving fairly unprofessionally.

As a member of management, what can I do to find a balance between a fun and free working environment, and utter chaos.

You seem to think that an open, friendly, low-stress culture implies low productivity and lack of professionalism. This is not the case.

As a manager, you owe it to your company and to your team to set clear expectations, and hold your team accountable for meeting those expectations.

You are probably already doing that, but aren't even aware of it. If you expect chaos, you'll get chaos. If you don't expect folks to act professionally, they won't. You (and the rest of management) set the tone for others to follow.

You should get together with the rest of management and discuss the issue first. Unless they are in agreement that change is needed, you won't succeed. But if they are, then you'll have a chance.

I'd have a team meeting and talk about the fact that productivity needs to improve. I'd mention that I didn't want to lose the fun parts of the culture, but that without productivity we won't have a viable company. I'd make sure that everyone understood that change is necessary, not optional. And I'd hint that if folks don't want to go along with the changes, then they may be better off working somewhere else.

Then I would start setting meaningful goals, and measuring the achievement against those goals. Change is hard and it will take some time. Not everyone will understand and adapt quickly. But you do need to see understanding and progress. As painful as it may be, it might be necessary to eventually fire folks who refuse to go along with the new program. Hopefully it won't be needed, and hopefully everyone will get on board as quickly as they can.

If you are in management, it's your job to manage and to lead. You and the rest of management are responsible for where you are now. You need to be responsible for change.

You say in one of the comments:

It's an IT consultancy, most of us are software engineers.

An IT consultancy sells the ability to get things done. If you are missing deadlines and your team are acting unprofessionally, then very shortly you will have no clients. If you are not delivering what was promised when you deliver, clients will leave as well. Reputation is critical for a consultancy and what your team is doing is destroying the business reputation of your company. You simply cannot afford that.

You need to look at processes. You should be doing 100% code review, so that nothing that does not follow the requirements is placed into production. You should have coding standards. You should have daily scrum meetings where progress is noted. When there was a lack of progress, the manager will get together with that person after the meeting and find out why there was no progress and remove the roadblock, reassign the task, or sit with the person and pair program (if the person is stuck and does not know how to progress to make sure the task is done. It is your job to model the behavior you want, so you too need to make sure that you are managing most of the time and not slacking off.

You need to talk to people who are not making progress if you see them playing ping pong (or what ever the the choice of work avoidance is in your office) and remind them that they need to have some progress by the next day. Playing is fine when you are accomplishing your tasks, not when you are not.

You also need to start hiring people with a track record of accomplishment, not juniors in their first job out of school. No consultancy can afford to have only people in their early 20s for very long. I suspect much of the problem you have is that you have tasks that are too difficult for the actual experience of the people on your team (or that are boring business things not fun projects) and so they play rather than try. You need to hire people with ten years or more experience in the business world. You need a strong leavening of kind of people who have a track record of delivering not people with "potential". These people are the role models you are missing.

It is difficult when you have not done your job as a manager to start doing it. People will resent that they are now expected to behave like professionals and you likely will lose some of them. Good riddance. People who are more interested in slacking than working have no business in your company.

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    "hiring people with a track record of accomplishment" is valid point. I've previously worked in company with almost exclusively 20-somethings and now I see that most of problems we faced could be easily solved by having someone with experience. – el.pescado Sep 21 '17 at 6:49

If you don´t want to enforce a lot of rules to ensure productivity, you have to establish a culture of achievement. You could start by making the performance of you employees more visible and putting emphasis on the high performers. You could also set goals for the whole team or company like not miss a deadline for 2 Month and we go on a company-funded fun-activity etc. What could be an interesting experiment: Put this problem forth to your team. Just have a meeting, tell them the company needs to improve productivity and they should propose solutions.

Be aware that any change in company culture will probably drive out some people and attract new ones, so be ready for some personnel turnover.

Good references for this style of leadership: Joy Inc. by Richard Sheridan

All-time classic and must read for every manager of knowledge workers: Peopleware by Timothy Lister and Tom DeMarco

  • not necessarily emphasise the high performers, start with the team (or the goals), make sure they are visible, deadlines are up on the wall and let them see that they are not meeting them. Hopefully that will nudge them into working together to achieve the goals. its possible that they don't meet the deadlines because they're not visible enough to them. – gbjbaanb Sep 21 '17 at 17:47

motosubatsu raises excellent points here.

However, in chat, you mentioned that management is afraid that they'll lose talent if they enforce tighter/more efficient working practices.

This (to me) is the wrong way around. These guys slacking off should be made aware that their performance reviews/bonus/jobs are at risk here. In today's market, this 'relaxed' way of working is becoming rarer and rarer and people leaving simply won't find the same perks in another company.

Getting things on track entails more rigid project management in terms of time/effort tracking. If people don't adhere to reasonable timescales for their work units, then they get moved off-project (or onto non-critical work-paths). This results in the achievers reaping the rewards of their achievements.

To keep things fair and open, the timescales don't have to be whip-crackingly tight - you want deadlines that respect budgetary constraints and quality levels.

It really helps to share the top-level time scales with the guys doing the work - this really gives them a flavour of how their slacking affects the plans of the business as a whole (and therefore their bonuses).

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    Excellent points.. especially around sharing timescales. Arbitrary deadlines are bad and if you can demonstrate that you aren't setting them that way it can help engender respect for them. – motosubatsu Sep 20 '17 at 9:25
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    On the "loosing talent" thing: keeping the right people may be crucial for your success, but so is getting rid of the wrong people. If you get more demanding it will only drive out the low performers. which is exactly what you want! – Daniel Sep 20 '17 at 10:08
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    Talent that refuses to be productive is not talent that you want to keep. Those are just children who need to move on, you need to hire real talent, the people who accomplish things. – HLGEM Sep 20 '17 at 13:42
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    Keeping "useless talent" around is one of the main plagues of the IT field - In a few years you end up with a 30-something reckless developer that hacks his way around with no regards for quality and thinks that he is some sort of Programming-Demigod. @HLGEM words are full of wisdom - don't keep Talent that isn't productive. – T. Sar Sep 21 '17 at 19:18

I have already upvoted the very succinct answer of motosubatsu, I would add this answer as another layer.

In an environment such as I envision yours, based on your question - I would be interested in investigating Gamification as an aide to help you put in place some proper management principles (as motosubatsu is suggestion) If you sneak in the management principles under a guise of a game, then these youngsters are sure to fall for the trap ;-)

Read up on it, but at the top of my head are suggestions like implementing KPI's for productivity and deliverables, but calling them scores, or points. Keep track of people's scores, and allow them minor advantages/benefits for "Leveling Up". Score individuals, score teams, score the company. As an example: If you are having quality issues, make a strategy to implement ISO 9001, have this be the "Level-up" criteria for the company. This is certainly a way to preserve the illusion of "fun" while implementing changes to behaviour and output that are meaningful and significant.

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    Beware of taking this too far, or you may find your employees do everything they can to increase their score, even at the expense of the work you actually want them to do. e.g. if you measure they number of tickets closed, they will only pick up the small tickets and will resent being assigned large ones. – thelem Sep 20 '17 at 13:42
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    agree - gamification is for children, not adults. Just fire the worst offender(s) and things will sort themselves out :) – NKCampbell Sep 20 '17 at 20:22
  • "Leveling up"? That's a way to put "get a raise and/or more responsibilities" that I don't think I've seen before. – Michael Kjörling Sep 21 '17 at 12:50
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    @JoeStrazzere seems to have worked to keep me (and others) posting on SO to get the sweet, sweet badges and upvotes... yes, I am just as much a sheep as you lot. For some people (eg 20 yos who prefer a 'relaxed' working environment) I think it would be their idea of heaven. If they could have a get-out clause for those of us who are responsible workers then that'd be even better! – gbjbaanb Sep 21 '17 at 17:50

A caution to keep in mind: you may have some deadweight staff that you need to lose. And these may be the staff that will lose themselves (quit) if they are required to actually get something done, and if accomplishing nothing is no longer tolerated. Measure by accomplishments not by the "upsetness" or not of your current staff. If 20% of your staff is upset and turns over, and the other 80% starts getting more done, you will have succeeded.

As I say, this is just something to keep in mind. The few squeaky wheels can distract from the fact that the other 90 wheels are now getting along perfectly smoothly and without complaints. ;)


On a more serious note, the same few bad apples who will always complain about deadlines, gossip, etc., are also making it hard for the other staff to get anything done.

A "nice" working environment that tolerates non accomplishment is very hard on people who are interested in getting a job done.

Set up an environment that rewards production and penalizes non-production and you will get more production. Just be sure you define what "production" means in a way that actually accomplishes the end goal you have in mind.

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