Want Higher Productivity? Stop Treating Employees Like Children

Monitoring every minute of your employees' day may make you feel better, but it keeps them from doing their best work.

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This post is in partnership with Inc., which offers useful advice, resources, and insights to entrepreneurs and business owners. The article below was originally published at Inc.com.

You could get a lot more done if your employees would just get off the Internet and get to work, right? Some estimate that time spent not working results in $130 billion (with a b) in lost productivity. So the last thing you want is your employees on Facebook or personal email. (Reading Inc.com is, of course, always good for your business.)

But a new study done by a team of economists reports that, even if they’re working, it’s the the temptation of the forbidden Internet that actually lowers their productivity. I’m always skeptical of research involving 60 volunteers, who are undoubtedly college students who had to volunteer for a study to get credit for their introductory psychology classes. Even so, the results are intriguing: They showed that concentration dropped when there was a video that the participants wanted to watch but were told not to.

The theory is, the energy to resist temptation detracted from their ability to focus on the task. Lesson: If you just let them watch the video, they can then focus on the task at hand.

(MORE: Quit Your Day Job? 5 Things to Ponder First)

I’m sure that is true. Any time we’re focused on something other than the task at hand, we’re more likely to make mistakes. But the unspoken problem here is not the temptation itself but the idea that the manager is going to swoop in and discipline them for taking a break. The authors of the study latched on to the Internet as the example of how this plays out in the workplace, but the reality is, the Internet is only one small attention sinkhole. Co-workers, planning your kid’s birthday party, last night’s episode of Downton Abbey, and everything else under the sun can also be a distraction to your employees. I think it’s more of an issue of micromanagement.

So, with all these things competing for your employees’ attention, just how do you increase productivity? I say, let them be grownups.

Don’t say, “No Internet for you!” Not because it’s a waste of time, but because grownups should be monitoring themselves. You should be looking at results and not monitoring minute-by-minute productivity. When a problem is happening with the result, you deal with that.

The reality is, some people need absolute silence and can concentrate on a project for hours without taking a break. Other people work better with music and with frequent interruptions, be it with other humans or the Internet. Some work best in an office environment. Others work best at home. Some people do their best thinking in the morning. Others are brilliant only after 10 p.m.

(MORE: Beware Employees Who Boast About Multitasking)

Depending on your business’s needs, you may need only people who can work well on the same schedule as you, or you may just need good work, whenever it happens. So, monitoring Internet habits (impossible with the advent of smartphones anyway), or demanding that everyone show up at the same time–because you work best at that moment–is not going to increase the productivity level.

What works is focusing on results. If your employees are nonexempt, you do have to pay them by the hour for their work (and pay overtime, when applicable), but if they are exempt employees (that is, professionals or managerial or outside sales workers), let them be grownups. Set expectations. If problems come up, address the problems. If their work is otherwise good, who cares if they check Facebook eight times per day?

You want the best results for your business, so let your employees have the flexibility to work the way they work best. Not the way you work best.


How about this: in a struggling economy, lets give the jobs to people actually willing to work and let bosses fire whoever they want, no questions asked. How's that for not treating them like children?


And when the boss needs to get rid of some staff, he goes straight for the "horrible employee". You can teach any job - even brain surgery. But a poor attitude and childishness don't belong in the workplace. Actually you should have even got away with it at home and at school while you were a child, but that is different discussion. If your mom allowed that kind of behaviour, she deserve to have you move back home when you're unemployed.


Letting employees have the flexibility to work the way they work best may be true. However, unless they are competent and responsible, such allowances may also be abused. Say, if my subordinates work best if given ample amount of time to finish the job, then I may only get to see outcomes weeks or months from the time the tasks were assigned. I think the best way (so far) to increase productivity is to recognise employees' achievement and reward them duly. When achievers are well rewarded it makes a real difference to the performance of the organisation/company. Unfortunately, many employers failed to see this. Till today, and in many organisations, reward system is still heavily influenced by cronyism, and largely guided by fiscal policy. 


This sort of thing is why I'm a horrible employee.

Boss: You can't do x-thing that is not actually relevant to whatever it is I'm hiring you for (like being in a call center and wearing close toed shoes. Wtf?)

Me: Okay... <sabotage stuff... Put bad reviews online, sign them up for junk mail, clog the toilets or lock the bathroom doors with nobody inside 'em. etc...> 

Boss: Never mind, normal shoes are fine. 

Me: <sabotaging stops>