my top employee constantly texts and surfs the web

A reader writes:

As a relatively new manager working in state government, I am having an issue with a direct report that I am really unsure how to address.

Let me preface this by saying this person is, hands down, the top performer in my group. The problem is that she is nearly constantly texting, sending and receiving personal emails (both from her work account and her personal account), surfing (both on her phone and her laptop), etc. I don’t understand how she ever gets anything done, but she does.

We of course have a policy addressing use personal technology and cell phone use during work hours. And athough she is the most productive person I have, I find it distracting, annoying, and disrespectful. Recently during a webinar she sat and surfed around on her phone during the entire time. Afterward, we discussed some of the topics covered, and she was obviously paying attention. However, she was the only person in the room behaving this way. We were in a group with several other professionals from other states, and at least one person raised their eyebrows.

I answer this question — and four others — over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

Other questions I’m answering there today include:

  • How can I get clients to stick to deadlines?
  • Did my interviewer give me a numerical grade?
  • Should I worry about not being the go-to person for my team?
  • Coworker hogs the coffee supplies that we all bring in

{ 398 comments… read them below }

  1. pleaset

    My mom complained a few years ago that I wasn’t paying attention to what she was saying. Not due to my using a phone, but because my eyes were wandering. I recited back the previous two minutes of what she’d said, nearly verbatim.

    I’m a smart but bad child.

    1. JokeyJules

      I have very similar stories from my childhood as well.
      Oddly enough, I retain less information if i’m not doing multiple things at once.

      1. krysb

        I’m the exact same. I need something that distracts the squirrelly part of my brain, so the rest of my brain can function properly.

        1. Amber T

          For as much crap as fidget spinners and the like get, they really are beneficial for a lot. I’m friends with teachers of tiny children and I know they have confiscated waaaaay more than could have possibly helped kids, but at the same time, I have a fidget cube that I really like when I’m trying to problem solve (the quiet parts at least – the *click clicks* annoy me).

          1. Starbuck

            I’m playing with a binder clip in one hand as I scrolled through this post. I can’t pay attention to speakers if I’m not doodling. If I try to sit still, my mind just goes elsewhere.

        2. Kelsi

          This! I was constantly doodling in class, but I always got in trouble for “not paying attention.” I needed to shut down the fidgety part of my brain so the rest could focus!

          When I wasn’t allowed to draw, I’d write stories instead. It flew under the radar better–because it looked like taking notes–but was ultimately less beneficial to my learning, since writing stories took way more of my attention.

          1. TardyTardis

            Same here! I normally did chapter summary planning in such meetings and took notes, so if anyone had questions I could read it right off. Fortunately I never mixed them up…

      2. Samiratou

        Yeah, me too. I pay way better attention in meetings playing stupid games on my phone. Without that, I tend to space out and my mind wanders in all different directions.

        It’s part of my ADD, though.

        1. tangerineRose

          I’m also much more comfortable listening if I doodle or do something else at the same time. I didn’t realize that was a sgn of ADD.

        2. ArtsNerd

          Yup! At my old volunteer gig, any serious business meetings were full of craft projects, Legos, phone games, and the like since the whole organization basically ran on our executive dysfunction! In good ways, as well as the obvious downsides.

          1. JessaB

            Oh yes this. I have a fidget/relaxation programme on my phone that has everything from quiet things to pretend bubble plastic and a virtual Newton’s cradle. The relax side has quiet puzzles and a zen bell bowl and a virtual sand garden. I’d go spare without it. I also have one of those fidget cubes, and I tend to physically self stim.

            Society is changing but as usual not fast enough, we don’t understand enough about the brain, but it’s obvious that a large enough to be statistically relevant part of the population needs things like this.

            And also studies have shown that children do better in school whether neurotypical or not, when they’re allowed movement. The sit still with your feet planted, hands folded on the desk thing is developmentally damaging. I mean we all turned out mostly okay with it, but it’s NOT best practise in any sense of the word. But not only does it help learning, it’s about learning how to be in a three dimensional world and moving properly in it.

      3. MsChanandlerBong

        I was wondering if this might be the case, at least regarding the webinar. I am NOT someone who learns well with audiovisual tools. I am a reader/talker all the way. Making me sit through a video or webinar is akin to torture. Also, I have attention problems, and the only way I can pay attention to a video or webinar well enough to retain the info is if I also read a book/article and do something else at the same time. No, you shouldn’t be on your phone, but I can see skimming a work-related document or taking notes to maintain focus.

        1. Ophelia

          My idea of torture is endless audiobooks, read at slow speed, followed by quizzes I would fail utterly.

      4. Tongue Cluckin' Grammarian

        I dealt with this in school by drawing all the time. It looked like note-taking, and helped me focus.
        I’ve started doodling when I’m in meetings that I’m having trouble focusing on. It helps me focus, but it doesn’t look like I’m not paying attention either because I look up periodically to show engagement.

        1. Julia

          I did that in school to varying extent. One teacher got mad at me for doodling, even when I told her it helped me focus.

      5. Ophelia

        100%. I often work with the TV on in the background, because having “distraction” actually helps me focus on what I’m doing. I also tend to work in intense bursts, and I sometimes need to decompress a bit between those bursts, so if I’m surfing the web, it’s to turn off my brain for a bit so I can concentrate again afterwards. I’d venture to say I’m a productive, high performer in my team, as well.

        1. Snark

          This is me. Hammer out 15 pages! Post on AAM. Furious typing! Check email. Rewrites and revisions! Post on AAM. Hammer out another 15 pages! Post on AAM.

        2. TootsNYC

          I did my best studying in the snack bar of the Student Union. Which I only discovered after I’d given up trying to stay focused in the Quiet Lounge across the hall.

      6. Clumsy Ninja

        I crochet during non-work meetings, as well as while watching television. It keeps my hands busy so that I can stay awake and my mind can retain information better. I can’t do this at work, though, because no one would appreciate that I actually AM paying attention. Which is a shame.

        1. Alex the Alchemist

          Same, but with knitting! I had a class last fall where the professor actually encouraged us to knit/craft in class, with us making hats during lectures and discussions and donating almost 100 at the end of the semester to a homeless shelter. It helped me focus so much better with my hands moving and doing something relatively mindless, and I loved that it was professor-sanctioned.

    2. Bea

      I’ve had a similar issue with my mom in my younger days. Now that my mom finally decided she loves facebook and has a tablet, she’s the worst at truly ignoring us for that thing. Who’s the brat now, mom?!

      1. Roja

        Ha! It’s exactly the same with my mom and I. I used to have my nose buried in a book (I’m just old enough that it was regular books not technology when I was younger), but now she’s the one with her nose buried in her tablet. Cracks me up!

      2. Amber T

        Lol I go out to eat with my parents and my phone stays tucked away in my purse, but my parents are the ones browsing Facebook, checking their email, looking at Pinterest…

    3. Les

      This is me in every meeting with the big boss. Sorry if you wouldn’t know a truly smart person if he bit you in your back exit, Mr. CEO, but I assure you what you have to say is not so complicated that I can’t take it in while doing something else that’s a better use of my brain. Even if that’s just looking out the window.

      1. Seriously?

        That’s part of why it can rub people the wrong way. You are communicating with body language that looking out the window, surfing the internet, texting is more important than what they are saying.

      2. You don't know me

        My old boss used to get so mad at me for looking out the window while he was droning on and on. It was just so much more interesting out there.

    4. Magenta Sky

      I did that in physics class in high school. Sat in the front row, didn’t take notes, and often had my head down on my desk looking for all the world like I was asleep. The teacher quizzed me the first couple of times about what he was talking about, and I recited his lecture back word for word for a couple of minutes. After that, he left me alone. Because he gave extra credit problems on his tests, I finished the semester with a grade that was over 100%. It worked because everybody knew I was the school braniac, and expected it.

      But when it disrupts everyone else, it becomes a matter of “You’re better than anybody else, but you’re not better than *everybody* else, and you can’t run the whole department alone.”

      (I’d expect the superstar to end up so bored she found a different job rather than not do things to keep her awake during those especially boring moments. That might still be an improvement, if she’s distracting enough, but the decision between her and everyone else is one that should be made consciously.)

      1. Cedrus Libani

        In high school, I spent most of my nights working, and most of my class time sleeping. (You can legally require me to sit here while you tell me things I already know, but you can’t require me to be conscious…) I trained myself to listen while I slept. Things went into short-term memory, but weren’t stored for more than a few seconds. Thus, if a teacher got annoyed and woke me up to answer a question, I could respond correctly. But none of them ever asked me what the question was – and if they had, I wouldn’t have known.

        Had a devil of a time training myself to stay awake in meetings, once I actually had to do that.

        1. Magenta Sky

          I had a health class that I *did* sleep through. Sitting in the front row. I was a senior in a sophomore class I had to have to graduate, and the teacher pretty guaranteed me a B if I didn’t try to light anything on fire. (She was not speaking metaphorically.)

      2. TootsNYC

        I used to fall asleep in PhysEd class in college (early morning after an all-nighter; sun shining on my back through the window; boring boring boring coach for an instructor). But every time he’d ask a question, no one else would answer, so I’d raise my hand and give him the correct answer.

      3. TardyTardis

        Now, the manager might decide to add to this person’s workload, because she has time to surf and text and stuff, and is still a high performer. But there’s a limit to how much you can do that before she leaves.

    5. Marley

      I am part of this club–the doing two things at once club.

      I do wonder the the LW’s employee is bored and/or needs to find another job.

      1. T3k

        I was wondering this too (the bored part). I got a lot of notes from teachers doing similar (reading, drawing, etc.) in class, even though I was paying attention and if called on gave the correct answer each time, but I needed something else to do otherwise I was bored to death and would start fidgeting.

      2. Jen S. 2.0

        Although I would not equate “bored” and “needs to find a new job.” As often is discussed around here, the primary purpose of a job is to make money to live. Fulfillment and engagement is nice and ideal, but it’s a secondary bonus that comes after getting the work done and getting paid. The LW said up front that Employee is doing her work extremely well. Employee does not need to be thrilled and engaged and challenged and entertained and getting her jollies at work every day to be perfectly content and doing a great job at what the employer needs her to do. This is the inverse of employees who are upset that they aren’t learning new skills all the time and having a ball every day at work. There’s a reason it’s called work and not a party.

        It’s also possible that the employee isn’t challenged, and really does not need 8 hours a day to do her job, but has some complicated situation outside of work that means she welcomes the uncomplicated distraction of work for those hours each day.

        Plus, every job isn’t thrilling. SOMEONE has to do the less-thrilling stuff, too.

        If I were the LW, I’d do what Alison suggested — bring it it her attention that she needs to look more engaged in meetings, and that it’s obvious that she’s doing a lot of personal stuff … but after that I’d leave her alone about the surfing and email as long as her production stays high. Do you want her to look busy or to get her work done?

        The employee might indeed be bored, and I agree that the employee probably needs to LOOK less bored in public, and participate in a little bit of engagement theatre, but that’s not automatically a quitting-level problem, ESPECIALLY for a highly productive employee that you probably don’t want to lose.

        1. Jersey's mom

          Bingo! I’m generally working on a couple things at one (on work phone working on a problem, I’M on computer, composing documents). Sitting in a meeting can be excruciating, especially when it’s slow, constantly being derailed with personal or non-topic items (or slow talkers, God save me from slow talkers, and I know it’s not their fault). I had to give myself a talking to — to train myself to be a bit of an actor. Look up at appropriate intervals, frown, nod, look thoughtful, catch someone’s eye and make the appropriate face. That’s made a big difference. Then I can go back to surfing or gaming, or whatever it is that will keep me functional at a high level.

    6. Anon.

      It’s really comes down to this: are you up to the challenge? The challenge of schooling yourself to sit quietly and pay attention, and not doodle, fidget, or play with technology. Consider that the game, and see if you are good enough to win.

      1. Close Bracket

        And then all your attention is on this ridiculous game instead of on what the person is saying. Letting your eyes wander requires practically no attention at all. Unless you have this problem with needing to give yourself the exact right amount of stimulation in order not to be distracted, you will never understand. You should try listening to the people who do have this problem and believing them about their experience with it and what helps them.

        1. Socks

          Right? Like, yeah I would lose at that game, regardless of my ability to succeed in other challenges, such as ‘doing my job’… because they require different skills. I may have the skills to do my job, but not necessarily the skills to sit motionless for long periods of time. As it happens, my job DOES require me to give my undivided attention people, more than most fields, and I’d still struggle to avoid looking at my phone during webinars. That doesn’t mean it can’t be a useful skill to develop (and OP really should learn, at least, to not appear blatantly rude), but their attitude is unhelpful. They haven’t discovered a clever “gotcha”, they basically just suggested “If you find running laps to be easy, you should be able to rise to the challenge of making a souffle!”

          And, like you said, if you catch me sitting silently without doodling, fidgeting, or glancing at a screen, you can probably bet that I’m not listening at all, and am instead thinking very hard about, you know, not moving.

      2. elg.

        I feel like that’s not a fun game to play and it would be miserable to be the winner in that. And for some that very act of doodling, fidgeting or playing with technology allows them to work at a more effective level as it lets the brain absorb and curate information into something that suits them. It’s really odd to read that there’s only one way to pay attention, or understand things.

        1. Rachel

          Don’t discount the effort the presenter has put in to engage a range of different learning abilities. Surfacing the net or fidgeting is distracting to the presenter and to participants. At the beginning of each presentation whatever format, OP needs to talk about group expectations and include these rules. If someone needs a few minutes to play on the phone or fidget, it’s polite they step out of the room, do this and then return when they are able to sit quietly.

          1. tangerineRose

            Can’t a person at least fidget or doodle quietly in the room?

            My general technique now is to take notes, but sometimes a few doodles help.

              1. Bigglesworth

                I would argue that it’s only distracting if someone is making sure I take notes (aka looking over my shoulder). And I think it’s a balancing act – should the appearance of being rude by doodling outweigh the benefit received from retaining the information the presenter is trying to share. So long as it isn’t distracting to the rest of the audience, then I don’t see why it’s an issue.

                I say this as a former educator who would rather my students retain information, even if it meant they doodled in class. Appearances aren’t reflections of drive or intellect.

              2. What?

                How would you even know, unless you’re paying more attention to everyone else *but* the speaker? How rude and distracting.

          2. Libby

            I completely agree!! I’m stunned that the majority favour the person using the mobile phone. I think behaviour such as surfing the mobile, looking out the window etc which someone else is conducting a presentation is very rude.

            1. Susie Q

              If everyone is surfing the web and looking out the window, the problem is not the audience but the presenter.

            2. nate

              why are you stunned?

              it comes down to what you think is more important: your employee’s needs, and the work they produce, or, the manager’s feelings, and some feigned sense of respect for their “station”

              I notice that people that don’t seem to care about how hard someone works, or what their needs as an employee are, are the ones that think they are in the wrong, and likewise also think that managers all inherently deserve maximum levels of respect, even if they are doing a poor job or giving an uninteresting presentation, to the point that we are supposed to care more about how they feel about the employee, than how the employee feels.

          3. Kelsi

            I don’t need “a few minutes to play or fidget,” outside of what is happening. I need to do these things concurrently with the info being delivered, in order to absorb it well. It does me no good to go outside and play on my phone, then come back.

            I’m not a toddler getting the wiggles out. I’m an adult whose brain works in a specific way, a way that can’t be changed but can be maximized.

        2. Socks

          I think the real key is that there’s ways to fidget or play with technology or doodle that aren’t rude- like, I often volunteer to take notes in meetings of whatever sort, so that I can use my hands to type or write the whole time (and depending on the setup of my computer, I can usually quickly tab over to something else during downtime). Plus, I’m helping out! In conversations with people one-on-one, most people don’t care if you quietly play with a pen (so, not clicking it, that’s the worst) if it’s clear from your ongoing dialogue with them that you’re obviously listening. I don’t even think a lot of people notice, really. There’s almost never a need to play that horrendously unpleasant game, in my experience you just have to stick to socially-acceptable fidgets.

      3. Starbuck

        Who is that really benefiting though? It’s silly to expect that “paying attention” looks the same for every person. It just doesn’t, never will. For me, the prize of that game would be the excellent daydream I ended up having, because the speaker’s words alone weren’t enough to hold my attention. What did they say? Who knows, I was off touring pre-historic earth with the characters from a tv show I watched last night.

      4. Autumnheart

        Is this like the ADHD version of, “You say you have depression? Just cheer up!”

        I think it’s an important professional skill to *give the impression* of listening attentively and being respectful of the speaker. I admit that when I’ve presented to a room full of people on their phone, it is a bummer to feel like you’re just wasting everyone’s time. It’s an effort to put together a presentation, practice what you’re going to say, and get everyone in a room.

        But as someone who has ADHD, the inescapable truth is that I just check out after a bit. I can control the way I appear when this happens, but the fact is that I will no more pay attention without fidgeting than I will grow a foot taller and be able to dunk a basketball. It is physiologically impossible. Nobody ever gets my undivided attention for more than a minute or two at a time. Yeah, it’s a drag, but hey, there are worse things I could’ve been stuck with. Instead, you will get my “paying attention” face and I will do my best to not look any more disengaged than anyone else.

        1. WannaAlp

          Agreed. I too have limited attention (probably ADHD) and I cannot, hard as I try, pay attention to my sweetie when he tells me about his day, after he has very kindly listened to me telling him about my day. This is particularly the case when he goes into minute detail about excruciatingly boring topics, like the law, or traffic or computer hardware. He hates it when I do what I have to do to pay attention (e.g. knitting) so I end up putting on my best “I am paying attention to you” face and hoping there isn’t a quiz at the end.

          He thinks I am a good listener!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! (Mind blown.)

          People with neurotypical attention spans: please note that you can force us to look like we are paying attention, but please also accept the consequences that you may destroy our ability to actually pay attention by doing so. Please don’t fall into the trap of thinking that whatever you need to pay attention (quiet, stillness) is what will facilitate us paying attention. We are not the same as you!

          1. MerciMe

            This x 1000. And as someone who is neurodiverse and has chronic pain, even if I can pin my mind together to listen to you without fidgeting (which is exhausting), it all goes out the window once I start being in pain too. Sometimes, the only way I can be present is by so thoroughly distracting myself that the pain signals have to fight for equal attention.

            I mean, but I do want to say – people should feel free to be openly terrible about stuff like this. Because I don’t want to work for them any more than they want me to, so everyone wins.

      5. aebhel

        I have ADHD, so, no. I am literally, physically incapable of doing that, and if I managed it, it would take up so much of my attention that I would not be able to process what anyone was saying to me. This is not a problem in my work life because literally no one cares if I doodle at meetings, btw.

        You can have the performance of attentiveness, or you can have my actual attention. You can’t have both.

      6. nate

        yeah, that’s what is important – a completely arbitrary imaginary game that is designed solely so the employee loses out every single time. its a wonder why people aren’t interested in that.

    7. Jules the 3rd

      Yeah, I got this lecture in both undergrad and grad school – the teachers didn’t like that I did a crossword puzzle while listening and taking notes.

      OP: She’s your best. Do you really need to address this, or can you change your perception to ‘Good Employee fidgets using electronic devices, a quirk that doesn’t impact her productivity?’

      If you do decide to follow Alison’s script, give your employee suggestions of activities that address the appearance while still giving the employee some room to fidget. For me, I eventually decided to write more details in my notes. Didn’t change my grades at all, but it made the profs happier.

    8. PhyllisB

      I went to a Catholic boarding school my 6th grade year. We had a priest come teach catechism classes. If he thought you weren’t paying attention he would throw chalk or a board eraser at you. (This was in the sixties. Teachers could do those things then.) One day I was listening and doodling in my notebook. He threw the eraser at me and told me to stand up and tell him everything he had said the last 15 minutes. When I got through like 5 minutes, he told me to sit down. He never bothered me again.

  2. Susan Sto Helit

    #1 I agree with the advice given. If Jane’s internet usage isn’t affecting her performance then generally it shouldn’t be a problem – some people’s brains just need more stimulation than they get from the usual work environment, and if that’s what she needs to keep her focused and performing at her best then that’s what she should do.

    The problem is that the majority of people can’t work like that, and won’t get it, so she needs to work on the optics. That means surfing/texting when she’s at her desk on her own, and finding something else that will keep her occupied in meetings (people generally don’t object to someone casually doodling on a pad in a meeting in the same way they object to someone looking at their phone, for example). “I don’t mind you surfing the web as long as it doesn’t affect your performance, but you need to do it on the quiet and be mindful of how it comes across to your co-workers when they notice it” is one way of going about it.

    1. Kj

      Yeah, I’m an adult with ADHD and I can’t just sit and look at a speaker and be focused on what they are saying. My mind wanders too much. But I think it is rude to use technology while someone is talking (unless you really are taking notes) so I draw. This has gotten me attention at professional events, as I have an art degree and my drawings are above doodle level. Many people at my table at a professional event expressed surprise when it became clear I was very focused and aware of what the speaker had said, even though I was drawing. I think the matter of optics is important and I think the boss should point out that use of technology can be seen as rude, but that other things might be more acceptable.

      1. CleverGirl

        I don’t really understand how drawing is less disrespectful than using your laptop. At least you COULD be taking notes on a laptop whereas if you’re sitting there drawing it’s pretty obvious to everyone what you are doing. And

        1. CleverGirl

          (And)… as it was clear from people at your table, it looks like you aren’t focused on the speaker and aren’t paying attention when you’re drawing.

          1. Socks

            Not that this is super rational, but some people see looking at a screen as being more rude than other types of distraction. I would also see drawing legit art pieces (not just like, a geometric doodle in the margin of a notepad) as pretty disrespectful, tbh, for exactly the reason you said, that someone could at least be taking notes on a computer. But for many people I know, using technology is automatically the height of rudeness, in a way that other distractions would not be. Dunno why.

            1. Autumnheart

              Well, not necessarily. I have an art background too, and it’s just that my doodles are doodle-level *to me* but look like actual art to everyone else. It doesn’t take a lot of engagement to make a nice sketch over the course of an hour while you idly add a few lines here and there.

              Now if someone is vigorously sketching and shading while someone’s trying to present, then yeah, that is crossing a line. /unintentional pun

              1. Church Lady

                I was in a meeting once where a guy had an Xacto knife and cutting board and was trimming things out. Hello? Scary guy, scary weapon!? Art is great, just not sharp art. I have no problem with notes, computers, doodles – whatever gets you through the night. I draw the line at pointy!

          2. Starbuck

            I do this too, and my response to anyone who thought I was being rude would be – too bad, this is what it takes for me to focus and retain any information. Usually I’m making diagrammed/illustrated notes. I can sit in the back if it’s such a bother, but also if you think it’s apparently such a trivial task to just look up and focus on the speaker the whole time- you go ahead and do that, and don’t let me drawing distract you!

        2. I Wrote This in the Bathroom

          This is a good point about the notes-taking, and reminds me of a meetup group I’d joined several years ago. It was a new group, focusing on philosophy and ethics, we were supposed to meet at a local cafe for discussions, the group leader was a philosophy professor at one of our higher-ranking schools. So far so good. At our first meeting, the leader told us that no phones were allowed at the table. A little patronizing, but okay! At our second meeting, he interrupted the discussion to loudly reprimand the only person in the group who cared enough to be taking notes, *for taking notes*. All because she happened to be using her phone to take them. That was the last meeting I attended. Not sure what happened to the group after that. I did not feel like going back.

        3. Indoor Cat

          Weirdly, because I draw too at meetings or just whenever I have to sit still, people seem to think, ‘Oh, IndoorCat is an artsy creative type, what a quirk,’ whereas if I’m on my phone people tend to think, ‘Rude, why isn’t she paying attention?’ And if I try to pay attention without an object, and then start opening and closing my hands slowly and touching my fingers, the attitude seems to be, ‘Uh, is she high?’

          I think it’s just that our culture gives us connotations of different physical movements and actions, even if they all have the same mental state behind them, probably based in part on depictions in films or television, and part on stereotypes. Drawing = quirky, phone = rude millennial, hand fidgeting = on drugs.

          1. Seriously?

            I think it is also based on past experience or how well they would be able to pay attention while doing that action. If I were on my phone, I would not be paying attention well while I could pay attention while doodling. Also, when speaking to others, if they are on their phone, most likely they are not listening (in my past experience) while drawing does not seem to interfere as much with listening and responding. Of course, individuals vary and some people are perfectly capable of being on their phone while holding a conversation or incapable of drawing and listening at the same time.

          2. Lissa

            Yes, like how reading a physical book=smart, respectable, but reading an ebook/tablet=awful young people destroying the world with technology.

        4. Roscoe

          Totally agree. I hate how drawing is acceptable, but me looking at my phone or something isn’t. In both cases, I’m not looking at the speaker or presentation. But somehow one person’s “quirk” is fine

          1. Starbuck

            To be fair, as someone who always drawing during meetings or any kind of sit-down event where my hands are free- when I’m drawing, my ears are open and I’m still hearing everything and I can answer questions, re-cap etc. But if I’m on my phone, I’m not listening- I can’t listen. I’ve actively chosen to ignore the speaker, for whatever reason. I know I don’t take in or retain really any audio info while scrolling. So I understand being skeptical that someone on their phone is still listening.

            1. Jules the 3rd

              Except that the data doesn’t support the skepticism.

              It’s better management to use all the available data in making decisions, and ‘best employee with high productivity’ should be key.

      2. Camellia

        Yeah, it sounds like the drawing isn’t helping you either. I had to go through this when I started my professional career; I’m a visual person and would doodle/draw in meetings. My manager had to point out to me that it didn’t matter if I was paying attention, the perception was that I was not.

        I still doodle and still have to forcibly restrain myself sometimes, just for the optics’ sake.

        1. Camellia

          I have to say, though, that having a laptop sometimes makes it worse. If the speaker/holder of the meeting isn’t sharing anything on our screens then my eye will wander to emails and start reading them, or to the latest document I was writing. The written word is my biggest distraction, doodling patterns on paper actually keeps me MORE focused on what the person is saying. But again, optics…

        2. Nerfmobile

          Check out a concept known as “sketch notes” – a visually rich note-taking approach. (You can just google for examples.) A great method for people who need to doodle and draw, as it still can be demonstrably engaged.

          1. Media Monkey

            i was just trying to remember the name of this to suggest it! it’s really great.

        3. Kj

          Actually, I’ve had several speakers compliment my ability to use the information (we listened, then did activities at the table while the speakers wandered). I was generally ahead of the class and was clearly paying attention. Most also liked the art. Look, it isn’t perfect. But I have the choice to use drawing to focus or to sit and space out. I’m going to draw, as discreetly as I can.

      3. Jennifer

        If I am sitting still and staring raptly with attention at you, then you lost me utterly 20 minutes ago.

        1. Jadelyn

          Same. If I’m not doing anything else and am just looking at you and nodding or whatever, it’s because I’m just waiting for you to finish so I can go do something productive and my mind is already miles away planning my next activities for after you wrap up.

        2. So Very Anonymous

          Ditto. If I’m not writing something down — either notes or something else (I can’t draw, it’s always writing) — you lost me.

        3. I Wrote This in the Bathroom

          Same! I have adult ADD. If I’m staring the speaker raptly in the eyes, you can guarantee there are visions of dogs, cats, and squirrels dancing in my head.

        4. Leah

          YES!!! If I have to look at you and REALLY FOCUS on what you’re saying (especially on a really boring setting like a seminar where the person speaking has a very monotone voice and doesn’t do much to engage the audience) odds are I probably tuned out at some point and completely lost track of what the conversation’s about. Doodling always helped me keep focus, but at my last job my boss also thought it didn’t make me look professional or busy enough, and I had to cut it out. Result: I haven’t drawn in nearly two years. I’ve found other ways to spend my idle time, but I wish I could go back to doodling :c

        5. Snark

          And if you’re doodling furiously or gazing out the window, I assume I lost you 20 minutes ago. I get that different folks’ minds work all kinds of different ways, and I myself generally am not a perfectly rapt watcher of presentations, but it’s basic courtesy to give the sorts of standard social signals of attention and respect when someone is presenting to you or holding a meeting. And that kind of social signaling does have value and meaning.

          1. Tau

            On the one hand, I understand where you’re coming from. On the other, it gets tough when, for you, performing the “standard social signals of attention and respect” preclude actually being able to pay attention. I’ve thankfully gotten better at this as I’ve gotten older, but I still remember the class presentation in high school which I did not follow a single word of because the teacher was sitting next to me and I had to concentrate so hard on not doodling that I couldn’t pay attention.

            1. Snark

              I feel like in a classroom setting, the expectations should be a bit different. Like, your teacher taught you that whole year, they had your IEP if you were eligible for one, they knew how you worked, it should have been okay.

              1. MerciMe

                Why is it different? Do you want me to understand what you’re saying or not? I didn’t stop being disabled when I became a professional.

            2. Indoor Cat

              Exactly! Whatever happened to tolerating differences so long as they’re harmless? Not everybody is going to disclose that they have a neurological difference, especially if the difference is a bit more stigmatized than ADD (which, heck, there’s still stigma attached to that).

              I personally compare having a mental illness to being fat. Are there people who are uncomfortable looking at fat people, and find them off-putting or even repulsive, to the point where it’s hard for those people to work with or befriend fat people? Yes. Is being fat the best kind of body to have? No.

              But, does that mean that a person actually harms another person simply by being fat? No. Absolutely not! A fatphobic person essentially is causing harm to themselves by interrupting this relationship. A fatphobic person who assumes negative qualities like “laziness” of a fat person, and insists that, “well, the fat person could always just lose weight, so really it’s on them if they don’t want me to judge them,” is causing more of a problem with their intolerance than the fat person is causing with their weight (in truth, the fat person isn’t actually causing a problem).

              A person with a neuro-difference or a mental illness whose eyes sometimes wander or who need to do something with their hands are not causing problems either. Someone who takes offense and feels disrespected by these harmless things is just like the fat-phobe who finds the appearance of fat offensive and not losing weight lazy.

              While a fat person might attempt to lose weight or seek medical treatment if they want to, I would hope they would seek whatever treatment best improves their physical and mental health, not whatever treatment makes them lose weight most quickly to appease fatphobes. Likewise, a person seeking treatment for a mental illness or neuro-difference is unwise to aim for “as normal as quickly as possible,” and more for whatever changes are safest and improve their overall quality of life.

              Those safe changes probably mean that things like great eye-contact aren’t worth attaining, or can’t be attained right now. This seems like a clear cut “don’t judge” kinda deal.

              1. fposte

                I think the challenge is less the eye contact and more the wiggling and phone using, because those are ways of focusing that impair other people’s focus. I don’t know if I’d go so far as to call it “harmful,” but it’s not impactless. I’m not saying it’s impossible to have a culture where those are acceptable, but I am saying that just because it makes one person focus doesn’t mean it’s acceptable within the group when it has an effect on the rest of the group.

                Part of the challenge of workplaces (or indeed any group process, including family and volunteer groups) is that the best arrangement for an individual isn’t necessarily something that’s better for the group overall. That comes up a lot with things like music, for instance, since a lot of people work better with music and a lot of people work worse with it; then of course there are the thermostat battles. So saying “I focus better if I have music on or can play with my phone” isn’t the end of the discussion; it’s still reasonable for a workplace to say “Unfortunately, even though that may help you it hurts overall focus too much for us to permit.”

                1. Indoor Cat

                  I see what you’re saying.

                  I do think, though, that attaching a judgement of character to something like nervous movement or a thermostat preference makes it harder to reach a compromise, because then the manager is compromising with a “villain” rather than trying to bridge two equally valid points of view.

                  So, for example, with the thermostat, a compromise might be that some people will feel slightly warmer than they’d like (without risking heat stroke), and they’re encouraged to bring in cool packs or small fans; and others may be slightly cooler than is optimal for them, and they’re encouraged to wear layers and bring thermal pads.

                  But nobody is able to come to that compromise if, for whatever reason, people start seeing cold people as out of the norm, and thus being disrespectful to hot people for trying to turn up the heat, or passive-aggressive if they wear layers.

                  I guess “don’t judge” doesn’t mean, “let the employee do whatever she wants to stay engaged,” but it does mean, “try to figure out the best possible way to meet both sets of needs without judging anybody’s needs as wrong.”

                  I think the idea that Tau put forth that resonated with me is that the best possible world– where she can pay complete attention in a way that the teacher finds maximally respectful–just doesn’t exist. As the saying goes, “There is no way things should be; there is what happens, and what we do.” Given that we can’t have the best of all possible worlds here, what are the best choices every person can make in this scenario as it exists now? I believe that there are many options; at the same time, I believe that prejudice can blind people against some of the best ones.

                  Perhaps Top Performer can make an effort to demonstrate respect and appreciation for her co-workers in meetings in other ways, to mitigate the effect that her phone scrolling feels disrespectful. Maybe a sketchbook or knitting will have the same focusing effect, while coming across as more quirky and less aloof. Maybe co-workers and presenters can work on their confidence a bit, so as to not feel so thrown by someone using a phone during a meeting.

                  Full disclosure, I will say I skew towards easy-going / non-judgemental perhaps too much. I never want to be the person who asks someone to stop wearing a perfume or eating a certain food, even if the scent bothers me enough that I avoid the room they’re in. So, that instinct increases if I see how the strange thing helps that person, rather than simply being something they enjoy; I guess in some ways I do unto others as I hope will be done unto me, and I do get frustrated when it doesn’t pan out that way.

                2. Tau

                  Yeah, I think there’s definitely room for compromise but it needs to be approached from a perspective of “these are competing needs”, not “person A playing on their phone is wrong and bad and clearly not paying attention and needs to stop”. All too often, it turns into the latter.

                  E.g. I adjusted my doodling strategy over time – now I’ll often take notes (which are generally completely incoherent and which I’ll often throw away immediately after), or doodle in a less artistic way (filling in a square, repeatedly tracing a circle, random pen wanderings) which allows me to look at the presenter/blackboard/slides more. Both still work pretty well for focusing my attention, but they’re not as distracting or apparently-impolite as the way I doodled in school. I’d still be unable to pay attention if asked to sit still, not do anything with my hands, and keep my eyes to the front at all times.

                  (Also, there are going to be situations where the optics of paying attention are going to be more important than actually paying attention. If the CEO of my multinational corporation visits our site and gives a talk about the new corporate vision to us peons, my boss will most likely prefer for me to stare apparently-attentively in her direction and then ask my coworker to fill me in on anything relevant afterwards than to look distracted during her talk. The important thing is to keep those occasions rare if possible, and for said boss and coworker to keep in mind that that is a genuine trade-off on my part.)

            3. Jennifer

              Right. If it’s a choice between “making sure that I can stay paying attention in my own way enough to get the info” vs. “make speaker feel like I paid attention even though I was not,” I’m picking the first one because there’s no “both” option, apparently.

              1. Les

                That makes no sense; it’s the exact opposite. Now that you’ve heard from the other side, you can stop assuming people who doodle are universally checked-out when you have folks here telling you they are actually engaged.

                1. Snark

                  And now that you’ve heard from my other side, you can stop assuming it’s totally cool to be furiously doodling for an entire presentation! See how that works?

                  If I don’t know you, and don’t have any reason to factor in idiosyncracies, and I’m standing in front of you presenting about a project or topic, and you’re doodling? I’m going to feel disrespected. If that’s not what you want, then you do need to meet people halfway.

                2. bonkerballs

                  Some folks may be engaged, but others (like myself) are quite definitely not. When I’m doodling, I’ve completely checked out.

                3. Les

                  But you don’t need to feel disrespe–oh, I get it. This is one of those arguments where no one else can have a valid point. Cool.

                4. Newt

                  But Snark, the impact of the two is also completely different?

                  A doodler/fidgeter cannot maintain actual, real attention consistently without their physical outlet. As every doodler/fidgeter in this comment thread keeps saying. So what do you really want when you present a meeting?

                  Do you want to *feel* like people paid attention to what you said?
                  Or do you want people to *actually receive* the information you’re presenting?

                  You can say “you know it feels rude to be doodled at so the doodlers need to stop and consider the optics”, but if that case you are choosing the optics over the actual impact on how thoroughly the information presented will be absorbed and retained.

                  LW specifically referenced their fidgeter being a top performer, so to expand: What is more rude to you out of the two options:

                  Your coworker doodles during the meeting, asks some relevant and useful questions during it that directly reference what you’ve presented and, after the meeting, immediately begins following the processes you raised. They later are able to assist another coworker who is having trouble understanding the process.

                  Your coworkers pays apparent attention during the meeting, asks no questions during it, and afterwards you overhear them asking 2-3 other people basic questions about the processes that you covered in the meeting itself. It takes them a while to get the hang of the new process and you get the impression they don’t understand it all that well at first.

              2. Countess Boochie Flagrante

                Well, is it more important for someone to actually hear and take in what you’re saying, or for you to think they are?

                Personally, I’d say your demonstrably false assumption carries less weight.

                1. Snark

                  Porque no los dos? Both are important. Neither need be shunted to the side. If you need to doodle, do that. but. Meet my eyes every once in a while. Ask a question when appropriate. Nod. Stroke your chin sagaciously. Let me know I haven’t lost half the room.

                2. Snark

                  And the assumption isn’t demonstrably false. It’s just not universally reliable. Most of the time, if someone isn’t giving attention cues, it does mean they’re not paying attention. And it’s hard to know the difference when you don’t know someone from Adam.

                3. Anon for this

                  Snark if you don’t know someone, you have no more reason to assume the worst of them than you have to factor in idiosyncracies either. Why choose the option that means the worst for them?
                  Doodling IS meeting people halfway for people like us. What you’re asking for me to only abide to what you choose to see as “paying attention” when that means we’ll be utterly lost. We can’t just “focus harder” because that’s not how it works. Telling us that we must abide to this for your benefit means that we’re actually going to be paying less attention, that we’re putting ourselves at professional risk because we’re so focused on looking focused we can’t actually BE focused, it’s as if we weren’t present at the meeting. My lack of understanding of the presentation will come out and I’m going to look like a terrible employee. That’s way too much to ask of me, versus asking you to understand that not everyone processes the world the same way.

                  Do you see people sitting in the handicap seats on the bus without a cane and go “well I don’t know you, so I have no reason to factor in idiosyncrasies. You must be faking! Because I decree it so!”

                4. Snark

                  “What you’re asking for me to only abide to what you choose to see as “paying attention” when that means we’ll be utterly lost”

                  That’s not what I’m asking for. See a few posts up.

                5. Kj

                  Snark, I make an effort to look up at the speaker from time to time when drawing. And again, most of the presentation I attend have a lecture, then we practice the skill at our table while the speaker walks around checking on us- and I always do well at the practical stuff. I’m not sure why you are assuming that their is no opportunity for people who doodle to demonstrate competency.

              3. Jules the 3rd

                There’s ways to check attention without making assumptions about doodlers. You can build attention-checks in with questions, like ‘does anyone have an example of this concept we just covered’ or ‘how / where would you apply this concept’. I think checking is a better way to teach or collaborate than making assumptions.

                Some of the doodler push-back here may be from the expectation that the lecturer/teacher is the person with the requirement for requesting feedback in their preferred manner. The audience’s requirement is to absorb the information as best they can. Guessing the presenter’s preferred feedback mode is not part of absorbing the information.

                1. Admin2

                  My trick tends to be to be sure to ask a question or two which shows I am paying attention and looking for deeper insight. If that doesn’t show them I am paying attention and getting it, nothing will. Presenters love getting good questions.

          2. LaurenB

            Yes. I don’t understand the lack of compassion in these answers. Speaking is hard. Many people here recognize that. Why take such glee in announcing that you show other people exactly how much they are boring you?

            1. Starbuck

              This seems like a really uncharitable reading. I’m someone who draws during almost any kind of sit-down activity where my hands are free. If I’m not engaging that part of my brain, my mind wanders (unless it’s a discussion/conversation) and pretty quickly I’m no longer listening. Someone speaking at me just isn’t enough to hold my attention, in and of itself. I’m doing speakers a courtesy by bringing this activity to keep my mind engaged, rather than just zoning out into a daydream if I’m forced to sit still.

            2. Socks

              I agree that there’s value in learning to appear more like you’re paying attention in a ‘normal’ way, because regardless of merit, it can make people feel like you aren’t listening to them if you look very blatantly like you’re devoting all of your attention elsewhere.

              But what I think people are trying to say, generally, in this thread, is that we aren’t actually showing our boredom; we don’t have a difficult time listening because you, personally, are boring us, but because we just have a hard time listening to things. If we were bored, we might stop trying entirely, and just start daydreaming about something else while staring at you; instead, we are doing what we need to do to take in the information you are giving us, because we recognize its value. I can actively be hyperfocusing on something, indicating that it’s of extreme interest to me, and I’ll still be jiggling my leg the entire time.

              Although in the situation described in the OP, I would really advocate that she, like, get to a middle ground, because it’s pretty unlikely she can’t even manage that, and we DO still live in a world where most people actually aren’t paying attention if they’re on facebook, so that’s always gonna look really rude.

            3. Jules the 3rd

              They’re *not* boring us. That’s what people are trying to explain with such glee:

              Doodling (or some similar second activity) does not mean we’re bored.

              If I *stop* doing that second activity, that’s when I get bored.

              1. Jennifer

                It’s the sitting still and FOCUSING that gets boring. It may not be that the speaker is boring.

            4. I Wrote This in the Bathroom

              It’s not telling them that they are boring, it’s letting them know that we want to pay attention and to absorb the information being presented, but that a lot of us are having A LOT of trouble with staying focused while sitting still and being talked at, so we are using coping techniques for the exact purpose of being able to hear what the speaker is saying. As a favorite quote of mine goes, it’s business; nothing personal.

          3. Starbuck

            It seems like a worthless signal if it means you can’t actually be paying attention in order to display that, though. Why is the appearance of engagement more important than actual attention? This seems silly.

            1. Socks

              The majority of people look like they’re paying attention when they are looking directly at something and sitting still, and fidgeting usually indicates impatience, while devoting your attention to another thing indicates that you’ve stopped paying attention to the first one. Social convention developed around that model, and it does apply to most people. The appearance of engagement isn’t useless, any more than any other social convention that doesn’t come naturally to you. I think asking people a perfunctory ‘how are you?’ as a greeting is weird, but it makes people feel comfortable if I follow that script, so that’s its value.

              Just, also, in practice, I have found that there’s more or less rude ways to split your attention, and so it’s good to meet people halfway if you can. Most people don’t really read it as rude if you play with a pen absentmindedly, and sometimes (like if the information is available elsewhere, or it’s actually not relevant to you) the content of a presentation is just less important than the social aspects of the situation. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with acknowledging that and adjusting your behavior accordingly. If I only did stuff I personally found maximally comfortable, efficient, and productive, I don’t think I’d ever wear pants, and yet here we are.

              1. Mad Baggins

                Thank you for this. I’m confused why so many people are pushing the “but *I* can’t eat sandwiches!” line. All cultures have a way to indicate attention and interest to the speaker. If you’re going to break convention, either make it clear that you *are* listening (which is what all those “and then I recited what the teacher said for the last 5 min” stories are about), or deal with the consequences of coming across as inattentive. If you want the exception of “but for ME doodling means paying attention” then it’s your responsibility to communicate that. Of course speakers can hope that people checking their phone are taking copious notes but social convention and experience says probably not.

                1. MerciMe

                  Oh! I can answer that! It’s because this is a social convention that actively harms disabled people like me! And we all hope that if we keep saying that, people of good will will help us find better ways of coming together that support all our needs instead of punishing disabled people for things we can’t really help! Thanks for asking!

            2. Jennifer

              It might be the same logic as having the entire world run on an “early bird” schedule. “Most” of the world does X so you have to too, even if your body is the dead opposite of X.

            3. smoke tree

              I think there is room for some middle ground in this, though. I am also in the fidgeting camp, but I’ve figured out how to do it without making it obvious. If I lean my notes against the table and write on them, no one knows if I’m doodling or writing notes. If I fidget with something quiet under the table, it won’t bother anyone else and it’s easier for me to watch the presenter without getting distracted. When all else fails, I just take overly detailed notes to keep myself occupied. In a work meeting, I think it is usually necessary to balance your own concentration needs with seeming reasonably engaged.

          4. nate

            ” I myself generally am not a perfectly rapt watcher of presentations, but it’s basic courtesy to give the sorts of standard social signals of attention and respect when someone is presenting to you or holding a meeting”

            okay but that concept of ‘basic courtesy’ is not grounded in any real material thing, its most literally an attitude to make things harder for people like the employee in question.

            like even despite being the top employee, every ‘solution’ given here is based around the idea of limiting them, overwhelming them, or removing them – it makes no business sense other than making sure that anyone that is different is shoved out

            a lot of people on here are straight up arguing that its better to have a mediocre employee that feigns attention than a top employee that fidgets. and for what?? for the presenters feelings?

        6. LadyL

          lol YES! Another adult with ADHD here, and the more I’m fidgeting, doodling, wiggling, looking around, etc the more likely it is that I’m really thinking about the things you’re saying. If I’m sitting there still, I probably got distracted by something you said, lost track of the conversation, and ended up in my own fantasy world.

          I understand why optics are important sometimes, but I do get really tired of this world we live in where it often feels like the appearance of doing something well is more important than actually doing it well. With outsiders, like customers or vendors or whatever I see why the appearance is important, but with coworkers who know you and see that the doodling/fidgeting/etc is part of how you process things, and who see you doing a good job, why do I have to fake a very specific image of Good Worker Bee? When and how did we decide on such a narrow view of what a Good Worker looks like?

          1. Snark

            “When and how did we decide on such a narrow view of what a Good Worker looks like”

            It really doesn’t have anything to do with “this world” or a view of what a Good Worker looks like. Attention cues are pretty universal across cultures, throughout history, and even across species. And even when you know on an intellectual level that someone likes to doodle and the absence of attention cues doesn’t mean anything, it can be offputting and frustrating to see someone doodling or fidgeting or glancing around because you’re expecting those cues to know you haven’t lost the audience and are communicating effectively. And so, yeah, I think there’s a value to meeting the person’s eyes occasionally, nodding, and otherwise providing those cues.

            I just think there’s a reality to how these cues work that’s more than some fake, arbitrary imposition on you. I mean, in general, I totally agree that with coworkers who know you well, you can let them know that this is how you process and focus, and they can learn accommodate that. And who cares what you’re doing when you’re at your desk, doing your thing. I posted just below about how this is not a problem and doesn’t need to be solved, unless there’s outsiders around. And I definitely think that attention cues really should be faked for outsiders, vendors, clients, and so on, and I think even with people you know well, “checking in” every 20-30 seconds is important.

            1. LadyL

              I understand what you’re saying, but it’s definitely not true that attention cues are universal. In some places direct eye contact is an aggressive, rude gesture, and the polite thing to do when someone you respect is speaking is to look down (this is also true of many animal species). Some people will get offended if you just sit there staring at them and not taking notes, while others will get offended if you are writing instead of looking at them. Personally, as a Talker I tend to interpret silence as people are bored and/or disagree with me and are too uncomfortable to say anything, so I tend to feel best “heard” when my audience is jumping in to ask questions and talk back to me. But I definitely know people who would find that unimaginably rude and feel that listening quietly is what shows true attention. What we perceive as “correct” attention cues are absolutely shaped by our cultural values, and I think it’s always a good idea to examine cultural values deeper.

              And as this thread demonstrates, many neurodivergent people struggle with attention cues, particularly with sustained eye contact. I think that just saying, “Hey, paying attention looks this particular way, and that’s it” is doing a disservice to them in the workforce.

              As I said, I get that there are some situations where optics are important, but I definitely think many people are overly invested in them.

              1. Ellex

                The cues can differ significantly depending on if you’re the person talking or the person listening. When I’m listening, I find it annoying if the speaker seems to require me to interject with “uh-huh” and “okay” every 15 seconds to signify that I’m paying attention, but when I’m the speaker, if I’m not getting any feedback from the listener, I’ll definitely start wondering if they’re actually paying attention.

                Some of that is experience: I’m not a talker, so if I’m not talking, I’m probably actively listening, but I’ve dealt with a lot of talkers, so I know that if they aren’t talking, they likely aren’t listening.

              2. Snark

                Sure, there’s listening cultures and talking cultures and deferential cultures and so on, even across different workplaces. But that range of variation doesn’t really cover things like standing and pacing, furiously doodling, knitting, staring out the window, messing with one’s phone, or spinning a whirring little propeller – I taught Nepali kids once whose cues were not what I was expecting, but their attention and respect were obvious. And so, when dealing with folks you don’t work with regularly and know, I don’t think it’s doing anybody a disservice to point out that your vendor will think it’s insanely offputting if you’re doodling furiously during their presentation.

                1. LadyL

                  Unless your vendor is also a doodler and their reaction to seeing you doodle is, “Oh thank god, I can get my notepad out”.

                  And as for “spinning a whirring little propeller,” I presume you mean fidget spinners? Those were designed for neurodivergent kids, who used them as a way to help with focus and listening skills. Then it became a trend for everybody, neurotypical children as well, and then children who saw them as toys not tools abused them, and now schools ban them, which puts the neurodivergent kids right back where they started, with no tools to help them develop those “typical” listening skills. Not everyone is inherently capable of performing your idea of listening behavior with ease, which is why I think it would be great if we could, as a society, maybe dig into that a bit more and consider rethinking our narrow views on that.

                2. Snark

                  I have an invisible but significant hearing disability that makes it impossible for me to listen with ease, either performatively or naturally. I’m sympathetic to being physio- or neurodivergent, because I am. But I think that also gives me something of a hard nose about the expectation that the world intuitively and proactively accommodate one’s invisible disabilities, because I’ve never been able to reasonably expect that it would, and I’ve had to accommodate the world instead. When it’s not obvious, and even when it is, the world cannot be expected to proactively conform to your needs, and it seems unreasonable and tedious to demand it begin to do so.

                3. LadyL

                  @Snark
                  I mean I do believe in change, and that the world can change for the better. And I don’t think the world changes from people just saying, “That’s just how it is”. Throughout most of human history the world has been set up to champion those who had power over those who don’t, and those who are able bodied and neurotypical have set up the world to suit their needs over the needs of the disabled and neurodivergent. The fact that it is that way now doesn’t mean it has to always be that way, or that’s how it ought to be, or that the current status quo is inherently good.

                  I’m sorry to hear that you’ve had a rough go of it due to your hearing disability, and that you were not accommodated. If you were my student I would not have wanted you to feel like you had to accommodate others over your own needs, because I do think that is unfair to you.

                4. Starbuck

                  How about I doodle gently then? Idly, even? Your “doodling furiously” phrase is cracking me up. I’ve never really seen someone drawing with that kind of intensity during a presentation.

                5. Jules the 3rd

                  I think the fairly large number of professionals debating you on this means that variation does actually cover standing / doodling / fidgeting .

                  Also, I think the neurodivergent aspect is important. We’ve only started letting people express neurodivergence over the last decade or so; before that, it’s been ‘you must conform or lose opportunities’. I think this growing awareness of neurodiversity as a potential strength is changing norms.

                  I’d rather have someone be a top performer and fidget than be an average performer who looks at me.

                6. Kj

                  Snark, why does it bother you so much that people who are nuerodivergent might get extra accommodations and understanding in the workplace? From what you have written here, you REALLY don’t like the idea that they might get extra grace or understanding. I hope the world changes so we can have more people who are not neurotypical in the workplace- and to do that, the workplace has to change. I work with kids with ASD and they deserve the chance to have jobs, but some of them just can’t pass as like everyone else. Why can’t we have a world that allows them to be part of a workplace and accepts their quirks, as long as they can do the work? I’m sorry your disabilities were not well accommodated, but I don’t think that means no one else’s should be.

            2. Anon for this

              Attention cues aren’t universal across cultures. I’ve lived in four countries. In some of them, going “mmm! mmm! mmmmmm!” while someone is talking is how you show you’re paying attention, while in others that would read as you trying to shut them up because it’s expected that you’ll be quietly sitting while they’re talking and waiting for your turn.

              And I give plenty of these “checking in” cues and am consistently accused of doing it to fake like I’m paying attention to get people off my back.

              1. pleaset

                I want to add one comment about attention. My organization puts on a variety of events – workshops, panels, etc. And take a lot of photos of them. And we’ve noticed that in photos, when men are speaking men tend to look like they are listening or paying more attention than when women in speaking. Which is sad.

              2. Birch

                This is so true. It’s so interesting to go to academic talks in different countries–in one place, it was the cultural norm to listen quietly, perhaps while multitasking (non-distractingly), and then only if absolutely necessary ask concise questions with long pauses in between sentences in case someone wasn’t finished with their idea. In my country of origin it’s the norm to jump right in, preface a question with a long explanation that shows how much you know about the topic, and interrupt other speakers as more of a discussion. I find it both uncomfortable and hilarious when there’s people from both places in a seminar.

                And I think it’s important to take into consideration both the comprehension/engagement of listeners but also respect to the speaker! A few people have mentioned that public speaking is difficult and mentally/emotionally taxing, so there needs to be a balance, especially with speakers brought in from outside the team who are unfamiliar with the quirks of the team. Team culture can also be different, but with unfamiliar speakers it’s important to default to a broader cultural respectful attitude or at least understand that giving them some cues will help them help you and let them know how you are reacting to the presentation.

            3. Elspeth McGillicuddy

              Ha, yeah, if I’m trying to teach my dog a trick and he’s staring out the window, I know he’s not giving me his attention.

              On the other hand, I’m pretty sure I don’t want my coworkers staring at me with the rapt gaze of my dog when I’m holding a steak bone.

            4. tangerineRose

              So if a person is taking notes, occasionally doodling, but is looking at the speaker some of the time, is that OK? That’s how I usually manage things.

              1. Socks

                In my experience that’s usually fine. I’m not sure where this dichotomy of ‘staring directly out the window is the only way I can pay attention’ and ‘if you aren’t sitting motionless boring holes into my head with your eyes, I assume you aren’t listening’ came from. I don’t really think those extremes apply to, like, most people or situations.

            5. Mamaganoush

              Here’s what I know from over three decades of successful teaching (primarily college freshmen) and over four decades of being in the workforce: as long as people’s behavior is not disrupting others who are trying to learn/listen/complete a task, a smart teacher (presenter, team leader, etc) will let folks do whatever they need to do to learn /listen / accomplish the task. And will not take any of it personally.
              Also: I’m neurotypical, but I am a leg jiggler (I try hard not to, but if I’m not consciously paying attention, it happens) and a doodler. Doodling helps me focus. I stay off the phone because it really does distract me, but I know that’s not the case for many of my students (because I can see that they are on task, taking in the material, applying what they’re learning).

        7. Matilda Jefferies

          I actually had a speaker come up to me in the lunch line after his Motivational Talk, and tell me he had noticed how focused I had been on his presentation! And to my eternal credit, I did not tell him that I thought he was full of sh!t, and that the look on my face was me focusing on pretending I was anywhere else in the world than in that room at that time.

          (And this was before I knew I had ADHD, and before I knew that this was a thing that other people with ADHD also do. So good to have my experience validated here!)

          1. Lora

            Ha! If you catch me taking notes in a meeting, you should immediately assume that I will be quoting them to your disadvantage in the future. I only take notes for “on (specific date), you promised you would have X deliverable by Date, and it is now 3 months overdue” type of reasons.

            1. Jadelyn

              Or, for me, so that I can get on social media afterward and go “oh my god, do you believe this crap? They said…” with notes to back me up.

          2. I Wrote This in the Bathroom

            Haha, yeah, another case when I’d be gazing raptly at the speaker (in addition to “I lost you eons ago”), would be me thinking “Oh my god I cannot BELIEVE the ridiculous BS you are spouting”. I’d be staring at the person in shock and disbelief. The optics are probably great, but the underlying reason? Not so much!

        8. General Ginger

          Exactly this. If I can’t fidget, doodle, or otherwise occupy my body, all I’m going to be thinking is how difficult it is to sit still and present the look of rapt attention. I definitely won’t be focusing on anything being said.

    2. Kittymommy

      +1. As someone who needs to do multiple things at a time to concentrate, it may be the email, web, text helps gre focus, but if it is coming across to others poorly (and not just a couple of people), then perhaps it should be brought up.

    3. Jennifer

      I have the exact same issue. If I am not working on anything urgent/interesting and am say, just tediously working on stuff at the bottom of my barrel (like right now), the presumed ADD is probably kicking in big time after a while and I need to switch tracks and do something else even if it’s for a few minutes in order to stay awake and interested. If I only have one long tedious thing left to do at work instead of switching to some other work thing, this happens. And let’s be realistic: tons of people do this. TONS. I cannot be 100% focused on Long Boring Thing for 2 or 3 hours straight so I look busy, nobody can.

      And hooooooo boy have I gotten bitched out for other people not getting it all my life. I’m so tired of hearing about it, especially from folks who know I get stuff done and also do multiple things at once. It’s not hurting you! The work is done! Why do you care? Because it doesn’t “look right,” and “it’s weird” and “I hate weirdos,” seems to be the reason why. Joy.

      1. Accountant

        I had a teacher yell at me because I was talking while working. I presented him with all the work I had completed while I was talking. His response was that I can do that, but others cannot. So I got in trouble because they would stop their work to talk, smh.

        1. Snark

          I….honestly don’t see the problem with that? One thing I always tried to impress on my freshman classes was that aren’t just accountable for your own work and learning – you’re also part of a classroom culture that facilitates others’ work.

          1. designbot

            it often becomes a problem as you move up or want to move up and be seen as a leader. Once you get to a more senior level, the example you set is as important as your personal output.

          2. DArcy

            *roll eyes*

            That’s like the college professor who complained that I was “intimidating” other students because I was doing too well in the course. Yeah, well, if they weren’t SHITTY students, they wouldn’t be “intimidated” by having a fifteen year old classmate.

            1. Perse's Mom

              You simply being physically present is not at all the same thing as someone else distracting multiple other students (and possibly the entire class, depending on volume and content of the chit-chat).

              1. DArcy

                No, the professor was actually telling me to be less engaged in class and not answer any questions, because it was “intimidating” to the regular adult students to have a fifteen year old girl not just in their classes, but actively participating and making insightful responses.

                (And no, he wasn’t saying I was being a Hermione and *monopolizing* all the questions, he was very explicit. Don’t answer any questions at all, I’ll still give you full participation marks.)

        2. ScienceTeacherHS

          Talking inherently involves other people. And then the rest of the room also has to be subjected to hearing the conversation. It really is distracting.

    4. peachie

      I’m one of these people, and I’ve found the best “other activity” is to always take notes during meetings (on paper, not on a laptop). I rarely look at them afterwards, but it keeps me focused and has the bonus effect of making me seem really on top of things even though it’s basically doodling but with words.

      1. Cotton Headed Ninny Muggins

        Yeah, I don’t know that I have ever referenced notes after I took them in meetings, but it helps me to have something to do during without looking bored or distracted. If I could have it my way, I’d surf on my phone or laptop during, but unfortunately, perception is reality in many office settings, and those activities look like goofing off.

      2. Bea

        My problem is my meetings rarely require notes. Taking notes is odd unless it’s something to follow up with or I’m taking minutes for a documented meeting. If you take notes in the meetings I’ve suffered through that’s more distracting because we’re thinking “this isn’t important it’s all FYI BS and catch up…Why are you writing these things down?!” Sigh. Catch 22s.

        1. Anon for this

          I also run into an issue where I unwillingly become the “note taker” designated by whoever’s running the meeting because they see me doing it. This means I can’t pay attention and just write to keep involved, I have to scramble to cover all the notes for everyone. It also means that I can’t actually participate in the meeting in order to take all the notes, even though I’m no kind of admin or assistant and am at the same level as the other team members. It undermines me professionally and costs me opportunities and infuriates me when the same people who decided I need to be the note-taker now tell me in my one-on-one that I’m not participating that much in meetings and they’d like to see more of that.

        2. Jules the 3rd

          Yeah, I hate those meetings. I’ve started to count things, or tap my toes inside my shoe.

        3. I Wrote This in the Bathroom

          That sounds like a situation when I’d gaze attentively at the speaker and doze off with my eyes open. The speaker enjoys the attention, I get a nap, win-win.

          If it’s something meaningful, I do try to take notes.

      3. Kathleen_A

        Yes, taking notes does help me concentrate, and it also helps me remember better even if I never look at those notes ever again. Just the action of writing words down helps my brain process things in an orderly way.

      4. Only here for the teapots

        I do my best garden planning/grocery list making during meetings.
        A coworker does the phone surfing thing, even in smaller meetings with higher ups and everyone comments on it. She’s not the best worker but has a way of steam rollering people and meetings that make her seem much more engaged than she really is. After these meetings she spends a fair amount of time broadcasting to anyone in earshot how dumb the speaker or topic is and if inattention is brought up she doubles down saying that if people wanted her to pay attention they should be more engaging etc. She has upper management buffaloed though, and loves scoring martyr points, so she continues unabated.

        1. Socks

          Heh. I used to dominate conversations in high school about books I hadn’t read, arguing to myself that this was justified because the books were boring and my classmates were making dumb points. This effort was rewarded by teachers thinking I was really, really smart and engaged. I was a huge asshole as a kid, so it’s kind of funny to me to read about a grown woman at a real job just… doing the same thing. Bad look, lady.

      5. Kat in VA

        I’ve gotten static for taking notes at meetings.

        I’m not auditory AT ALL – I’m almost completely visual with a dash of kinetic thrown in for fun. You can tell me ten times how to do something and I’ll still be lost, but show me how to do it or better yet, have me do it myself? I’m in like Flynn.

        Why someone would be miffed that I was taking notes while they were talking is still mystifying to me, years later.

    5. Cristina in England

      I used to knit during lectures at university, which probably did distract some of my classmates but it kept my mind from wandering.

      1. Snark

        Oooh, the knitters in my classes bugged me so hard. I really don’t mean to attack you personally! But the little soft clicks and constant motion triggered my latent misophonia and just drove me bonkers.

        1. I will kill people with this cricket bat

          Right? Just the thought of this is making my skin crawl.

        2. Strawberry Fish

          That classroom/workplace misophonia!! My coworker who sits directly next to me chomps her teeth together about 5-10 times an hour and it instantly zaps my concentration as soon as I hear it. It’s especially tough when I’m doing something that requires a lot of concentration and therefore not listening to music.

        3. tangerineRose

          I was thinking maybe crochet would be less annoying to you (nothing to click against), but there would still be constant motion.

      2. Environmental Compliance

        I also knit, but only in large lectures/conferences, and even more so when I see everyone on their phones. My knitting stays in my lap, I don’t use metal needles, and I don’t need to look at my knitting – I’m usually looking right at the speaker. I’m usually still taking notes, as well. I will not knit during smaller meetings or the like, but if I’m having trouble concentrating I may have my project on my lap just to touch the yarn (project usually being a knit quilt square or a sock, something small).

        Apparently I’m a very stealthy knitter, since I made a hat & glove set at the last conference I went to, and the woman that sat at the same 8 person table with me about 2 chairs down expressed a great deal of surprise that I pulled a hat out of my bag to wear on the walk out to lunch.

        Hopefully I don’t disturb people, I just really need my hands busy to be able to sit and listen to someone talk for more than 45 minutes.

        1. nnn

          I am just so delighted by the thought of “Oops, it’s colder than I thought! Better make a hat!”

          As a person who completely lacks those physical/tangible skills, it’s like sorcery to me!

        2. I Wrote This in the Bathroom

          Back in the olden days at my first job, in the late 80s/early 90s, we all knitted in the office, during breaks and whatnot. I was a speedy knitter who rarely made mistakes. My roommate, who worked in a different group in the same department, was a slow and erratic knitter, who often had to undo all of her work and start over. Her supervisor once commented on her knitting and her brilliant comeback was “well my roommate ” (me) ” has already finished three sweaters this year, and I am still on my first!” Never mind that she had to restart her one sweater something like eight times, and so had spent more total hours on it than I on my three. My teammates were not happy about my roommate throwing our entire group under the bus with that statement. No one got in trouble, though.

      3. Jennifer

        I used to doodle in high school, did crossword puzzles in college, and now I knit. Yarn: the original fidget spinner.

        1. Jules the 3rd

          Read in elementary school, doodled in high school, crossword puzzles in undergrad / grad. Always had the best notes in class too.

    6. epi

      Yeah, I think there is probably a middle ground on this issue. Some people inherently want to multitask or keep their hands or eyes busy while they listen (I usually do). This behavior falls somewhere between “common preference” and “need” for a lot of people, for a lot of reasons, and there’s a risk of being ableist or just alienating people who are quirky but competent if you jump to the conclusion that we aren’t paying attention. At the same time, of course we all need to be respectful of others and realize that whether our chosen fidget is OK will be context-dependent.

      I work on one project where, over the course of four years, my supervisor has thought I was too distracted maybe three times. For the most part, she doesn’t care as long as I get my work done and I know she thinks highly of me overall. But she was right that it wasn’t OK to be distracted as often as I was, or in the way that I was, in specific contexts such as: during a period I was being paid hourly, during a period she was very busy and it would have been considerate of me to try harder to help out. And just because I need distraction doesn’t mean I never slip into overdoing it, so it’s helpful to me to be reminded in a low key way so I’m not too embarrassed and self conscious to step my concentration back up.

      BTW other things that have helped me but look pretty work-like include: formatting note outlines as I go rather than accepting the auto-formatting, so it takes longer; reading journal articles but on a topic that isn’t that close to my work so it feels more indulgent; taking notes but doing an illustration for the headers so the doodles stay small but you can embellish them endlessly.

    7. And So it Goes

      #1 There is a bigger issue here than just what she gets done while she DOES work. Just what is NOT getting done by being on other devices? How much more productive could she be? She is not doing piecework, she is on contract so to speak that when she enters the building her focus is on her JOB. Now, before everyone goes ballistic let me clarify.

      I run my own shop, spending my own money on consultants, big name web firms and national ad firms. My own money. When I contract something to be done I am paying for it to be delivered on time and on budget. I used to hear managers when I was in the corporate world say “I don’t care how they spend their (their direct reports) time as long as they get their work done. Funny, it was not their money that was paying them! I rarely hear business owners make the same comment. Certainly, I do not expect an employee to work 100% of the time, 85% would be good, but I am not paying them to socialized constantly. She is there to contribute should she have extra time, that is her job. Otherwise find a factory and work piecework if that is your work ethic, then see how that goes. On another note, I have done menial jobs to support my businesses at different times, my focus was always on the job in front of me, not my business. You owe your employer an honest day’s work, plain and simple. And they owe you a paycheck on time. Enough said.

      1. Not a Mere Device

        Yes, you’re paying for the job to be done, or product to be delivered, on time and within budget. If the budget says you’ll pay me 10,000 zorkmids for a detailed llama genealogy, due by the end of June, does it really make a difference to you whether it takes me 30 or 100 hours? If you’d really be happier to get it on June 23rd than June 30th, how about a contract that includes a bonus for early completion?

        Reasonable expectations include “I’ll pay you so much an hour for as many hours as this takes,” “I’ll pay you this salary, and when you finish the llama genealogy I want you to start on mica weaving” with some kind of mutually understood agreement about working hours and conditions, and “I’ll pay you a flat rate for that llama genealogy” (in which case the vendor quotes a price, or accepts/turns down the offer, based on how long they expect it to take).

        What isn’t reasonable is pushing people to work extra hours to get the job done on time, but getting annoyed at someone who finishes significantly early and then wants to take the afternoon off. It feels like you’re confusing salaried employees with independent contractors, as well as hourly workers with people being paid for piecework.

      2. tangerineRose

        The person being discussed is getting more done than other people though. So that person seems to be giving more for the paycheck than her co-workers.

      3. Jules the 3rd

        The fidgeting probably helps her get stuff done, tho. If I couldn’t fidget, I’d need to get up and walk.

        Micromanaging how the highly productive employee gets their work done is likely to lead to lower productivity and dissatisfaction.

      4. Autumnheart

        This attitude literally penalizes people for being more efficient than their coworkers. It’s stupid.

        1. Autumnheart

          To clarify, it would be one thing if the person in question were a low performer. But someone who does 40 hours’ worth of work in 32 hours does not owe you 8 more hours. You’re not getting ripped off.

      5. Jennifer

        I can’t speak for your business, but some jobs just require you to be “on call” from 8-5, regardless of your workload. If the urgent work is already done, it’s harder for the ADD-types to keep on driving and pumping along in the same way.

      6. aebhel

        If she’s completing all of her tasks in a timely manner and to a high standard, then it’s really kind of messed up to insist that she do MORE BETTER MORE MORE just because she theoretically could.

        Frankly, you sound like some retail managers I’ve had who’d punish people for being efficient by giving them busywork or offloading the slower people’s tasks onto them just so they wouldn’t spend any time idle, which, I assure you, does not encourage efficiency. And frankly, this is a pitfall I’ve seen many a business owner fall into: you cannot expect your employees to be as invested in the company as you are as the owner.

  3. Manic Pixie HR Girl

    You say she is not only getting her work done, but she’s the most productive person on the team.

    *She’s bored and she doesn’t have enough to do.*

    Give her more/more challenging work if you have it. She’ll rise to it. My guess is she’d rather be fully engaged than surfing the web.

    1. Mary Dempster

      I agree with this. Said as someone surfing the web and taking notes during a webinar right now.

    2. pleaset

      I agree, but the problem is meetings or other situations where it’s not so easy to be doing more without appearing disrespectful.

      I often am writing two sets of things in meetings – one is basic notes so it looks like I’m paying attention (which I am). And the other is something else.

      I should mention I’m more than a little skeptical of people who say they have to do multiple things to concentrate. But in situations like the OP’s employee in a typical meeting, stuff is happening so slowly (for her) that she doesn’t really need to concentrate to absorb as much info as other people.

      1. pleaset

        To clarify – I think doing one or at most two other things, like doodling or something with the hands, CAN help concentration. But checking email etc – not good.

      2. Oxford Coma

        I also found it hard to believe until I married someone with severe ADD. I live with someone who coherently converses with me while watching TV, listening to the radio, and playing a (totally different) song on the guitar…it’s mind-boggling. I lose concentration if a chipmunk farts the next town over.

        1. Future Homesteader

          There is now potato salad on my keyboard, thanks. (No, really, thanks, the chipmunk thing just made my day.)

      3. Camellia

        “…stuff is happening so slowly (for her) …”

        Wow, this hit home for me and I just realized it was a THING after this year’s Super Bowl. My husband recorded the game to watch later. I find football boring and can never follow what is happening on the screen. But I was in the room reading and he was fast-forwarding through a segment, it caught my eye, and all of a sudden I yelled Stop! It was so cool – watching the game in fast-forward, it suddenly all made sense! I could see the patterns, follow the play, everything. At last football made sense to me. Now I use this on a lot of things – want to watch a YouTube video on makeup? Turn that sucker up to 2x normal speed. I can listen, comprehend, and watch perfectly.

        1. Mike C.

          I abuse my DVR doing stuff like this.

          What I find so often is that presentations and webinars and what not are so slow and so dumbed down that what every they’re spending 60 minutes to present I can understand in 10 or 15. I’m so tired of this – I’m an adult, I should have to waste my time sitting there forced to do nothing else but listen to someone repeat themselves for an hour or more.

          1. Nanani

            This is the number 1 reason why I hate video as an information tool – it’s fine as an entertainment tool, but if you’re just giving information? Write that shit down so I can read at my speed, which is faster than most humans can talk.

            1. Lynn Whitehat

              I was a very happy person the day I discovered the “speed” button on YouTube.

              1. anonymouse

                Me, too – I just discovered it today through this comment thread and it’s great!

            2. pleaset

              There are some video viewers where you can speed things up (you can on YouTube). The best are systems that remove empty time between words without actually speeding up the words quite as much.

              And sadly, at least with video we can fast forward a bit. Alive speaker not so much…..

            3. Jules the 3rd

              +1 million. I *hate* video for education.

              I have made this request to my current employer multiple times – just make a transcript an option! Test me after if you need to know I read it, I like tests…

              1. Lau (UK)

                Our e-learning provider has a transcript option. I fully admit to setting the video to 3x and reading it

            4. Andraste's Knicker Weasels

              It’s maddening as entertainment a lot, too!

              “hey guuuuuys, welcome to my video. Hope everyone is having a fantastic day. Today I’m going to discuss, um” AHHHHHHHHHHHHH JUST GET TO THE POINT

            5. Kat in VA

              So many times I want to know how to do something (take apart a pool pump with an impeller problem comes to mind as the most recent) and there’s always TONS of how-to videos.

              I don’t want to watch you talk and explain everything – just write it down, maybe add some pictures, and I’m good to go. I don’t need to hear you – I only need to see it!

          2. Ellex

            Powerpoint presentations where the presenter has to read out everything on the screen drive me up the wall. I can read at least 5x faster than they can speak. I take in much more information if I can just read it instead of being distracted by someone basically narrating the whole thing.

            1. Story Nurse

              This is incredibly bad Powerpoint form and I find it so upsetting when someone does it. I’m a devotee of the Edward Tufte school of presentations: Powerpoint is there to provide illustrations (photographs, diagrams), the information is conveyed in the spoken lecture, and everyone gets a handout with the key points you want them to retain. If all you’re doing is reading off your slides, give people printouts of the slides and be done.

          3. Overeducated

            Ugh yes. Going to read through a Powerpoint on screen for an hour? Why don’t you just send me the presentation and I’ll read through it…said as someone who was subjected to this for 2 hours today when I actually have a backlog of work.

      4. Matilda Jefferies

        I’m another adult with ADHD, and I can confirm that I absolutely have to be doing something with my hands in order to concentrate in meetings. I’ve also noticed it with my children (both also diagnosed with ADHD), and several other people on this thread have said the same. You can be skeptical if you want, but there are at least a dozen real people on this thread telling you that this is their experience.

        1. pleaset

          I tried to clarify that doing something with the hands makes sense, whereas actually doing on email is another matter. And it’s worth noting that many people have flawed perceptions of their own efficacy, with some studies showing that people who claimed to good at mulit-tasking actually weren’t as effective when doing so.

          1. Socks

            Yeah I kinda feel like I’m bad at having ADHD, but I really can’t multitask on two things that require my actual attention- if I was honest to god reading something else on my computer (not just scrolling through pics or something) I can probably parrot back the last sentence you said, but I really, really was not listening. Because I was so good at the parroting thing, and because, for a lot of my school career, I was remarkably unchallenged, I used to think I was great at multitasking! But, no, I’m terrible at it. It’s very easy to confuse ‘not needing to pay close attention to something in order to succeed’ and ‘being able to pay attention to two things at once’, though.

      5. teclatrans

        I don’t usually need to *do* two things, but often I need multiple sources of income (which can come from actively doing or passively listening). It drove my sound-sensitive mom absolutely bonkers when I would do homework with TV and radio on. But one input wasn’t enough stimulation to kick in my focus capacity.

        1. teclatrans

          Argh. Input. Two sources of input.

          And boy does the point about things moving too slowly resonate.

        2. Jules the 3rd

          Ever hear of Sensory Processing Disorder? I’m hypersensitive mostly (especially touch – no massage! no!), my husband’s hyposensitive mostly, our kid’s got some of each (touch hyper; sound / light hypo). Knowing this, I can find ways to accommodate all of us (specific clothes = yes; husband / kid go to intense light/sound experience while I hide in a book; etc).

          You are not alone.

          It would be nice if people would stop dismissing our lived experience just because it’s different from theirs.

          1. Vermonter

            I didn’t know that “hyposensitivity” was a thing. This information is life-changing, thank you!

      6. Temperance

        I can’t just listen to a person speak unless the topic is incredibly interesting; it almost never is in work meetings. So, to keep myself awake and aware, I’ll make to-do lists and pretend to take notes. Otherwise, my brain sort of zones out and I am clearly not paying attention. Writing things down keeps me in the room and focused.

    3. KHB

      That’s possible, but it’s not the only possibility. It could be that working as efficiently as she does is mentally draining, and she needs to take frequent breaks to clear her head.

      And if you do give her more or more challenging work to do, if at all possible try to tie it to an increase in salary if she rises to the challenge. It can be demoralizing when the reward you get for being good at your job is having to shoulder twice as much work as any of your less competent peers.

      1. Hope

        Amen. My work can be very tedious, and to do it well, it helps to take frequent breaks or at the very least change up what I’m doing so I can keep coming back to my main task with “fresh” eyes/outlook. Thankfully, my boss gets this.

        I get bored in meetings too, at least presentation-style meetings that don’t involve a decent amount of back and forth. I always take paper/pen with me for “note-taking”, but honestly more often I can make better use of that time by working on something else while listening to the meeting.

      2. Camellia

        Yup. My daughter in school – oh, she’s bored? More work! Not more interesting work, necessarily, but just more. Couldn’t make teachers understand the issue.

        1. Starbuck

          This is what my 4th grade teacher did to me. Oh, you already finished today’s multiplication worksheet? Here’s another with the same level of problems. And there’s plenty more where that came from! Eventually I learned to just hang on to my finished work and draw or play with small toys at my desk until everyone else was ready to move on. Fortunately my parents switched me to a different school the next year.

        2. Socks

          The worst! “If you’ve finished your classwork, why don’t you get a head start on your homework?” Because it’s soul-crushingly tedious busywork and I don’t care about it, generally, but thank you for asking. Then I got in trouble for reading. School was great.

          1. Environmental Compliance

            I got in so much trouble in class for reading. Finished both my classwork AND homework, and the teacher would get pissy at me for pulling out a book and quietly reading. “There’s no way you’re done already!!” was usually coupled with “That book is too advanced for you, you can’t possibly be reading that!” and “Here, just do another worksheet!” Okay, but why do I need to spend even more time doing stupid busywork when the other option is quietly & unobtrusively reading? I will never understand the logic of punishing a kid for *reading*.

            1. Birch

              Me too! I actually got yelled at in high school for working on other subjects after having finished the work assigned in that class (perfectly, I should add). I was told it’s rude to do work for another class even though we weren’t given anything else to do. WTF. The worst was in junior high when we would be assigned novels to READ TOGETHER OUT LOUD IN CLASS. As in, we’d go around the room with each person reading a paragraph. It was absolute torture. I’m a fast reader so I always finished the book on the day it was assigned. I would bring in my own book and hide it inside the cover of the one we were supposed to be reading and was able to keep up with the one being read in class when it was my turn.

    4. LadyKelvin

      That’s me in a nutshell. I spend probably >1/2 my day surfing the web as I work because I don’t have a lot to do right now, or more accurately, I don’t have any deadlines looming in the next three months. However, when its the busy season and my workload is heavier and deadlines are approaching, I can sit and focus for 8 hours no problem and be very productive. I know better than to surf during meetings, etc when it might be obvious that I am doing so, but I do worry that everytime someone comes to my desk I’m reading the news. However, I did just get a (rare) merit raise in my annual review this week, so it must not be a problem.

    5. Free Meerkats

      No, no, no. No. NO!

      I’m so sick of this tack; he’s good at what he does and is able to get it done well, so lets give him more work. Like the LW’s employee, I’m in government and like the LW’s employee, no matter how much more you pile on me, I’m not going to get more money for doing more work.

      I’m good at what I do, I’ve been doing it for 35+ years, so I can work fast and well. While I’ll take on the more complex parts of the job, giving me more work than the person with 3 years in the field because I’m faster won’t make me “rise to it.” It will just piss me off.

      Ask me if there’s something I can take off your plate and put on mine. I rewrote our entire ordinance at a conference. It was something that needed to be done, it made good use of my knowledge, and I managed to avoid death by Powerpoint. I probably looked very attentive and “there”; but I was thinking hard. And those notes it looked like I was taking? Those were the edits I was thinking about while staring raptly at your presentation. And I still absorbed what needed to be absorbed at the conference.

    6. CMart

      I think that’s really a discussion to have with the employee! Maybe she’s bored, but maybe one of the perks of being a Highly Efficient High Performer is that she can do 8 hours of work in 5 hours and can entertain herself or take care of personal business in the remainder of the time.

      Probably a conversation that touches on being more discreet about the browsing and phone usage (especially during meetings–eek), as well as reminding her that if she needs some new projects to work on to come seek them out would be a good one to have. It sounds like the manager is happy with her output and doesn’t need her to take on more work, so leaving it up to the employee to seek it out would be nice for everyone, I think.

      It’s not something I will ever admit to an employer, but there’s a reason I accepted my current position in a role with only a medium amount of responsibility in a slower paced industry. The nice way to describe my work philosophy is “work smarter, not harder”. The rude but accurate way would be to say I’m clever, but lazy and unambitious. I do my damndest to hide my idle Internet browsing and texting from the eyes of my manager and colleagues, because I really really don’t want to be given extra responsibility. I want to do my assigned work, I want to do it well, and I want to maintain my status quo as an efficient worker who produces high quality work that requires minimal review.

      Please don’t give me more projects. I don’t have time to read AAM at home!

      1. rageismycaffeine

        +++++++100

        Hello new best friend I found in the AAM comments section. :)

      2. Camellia

        This! I want the weekend open thread to be on a weekday so I can read/post! Maybe on a Wednesday?

      3. Jen S. 2.0

        All of this! I do all that is asked of me and well and on time, plus a little extra, and I have the occasional very busy few days, but my job generally doesn’t take me 8 hours a day. And I’m … very much fine with that.

    7. What's with today, today?

      Please do not give her more work without a correlating raise. One of the reasons I LOVE the low paying job I’ve had for a decade is because even as the top performer, I have some downtime. If that suddenly went away because of optics, I’d be gone in a heartbeat.

      1. Justin

        This is why I liked my last job, until my wife was like “buddy, no, we need $$$.”

        But i got lucky i have downtime here too.

    8. Cotton Headed Ninny Muggins

      I don’t necessarily agree. She isn’t really asking for MORE work, nor do we know if she’s bored. Maybe she likes a job that she is good and fast at, and likes the fact that she has extra time. That’s what I like about my job. I like that I am competent (dare I say good) at the tasks, and that I have time to manage myself. I take frequent ‘mini-breaks’. I am always available to my supervisors if they need me to tackle some additional, but I would be resentful if I was regularly assigned more work than my equivalently paid coworkers because I appeared bored.

      1. CMart

        God does it feel great to see other people like myself popping up here in the comments. I always feel like a big jerk for having this outlook.

    9. CPAlady

      ABSOLUTELY NOT. Do not “reward” a highly productive employee by piling more work onto them, unless you are also planning to pile more money on there. The consequence for being good at your job should not be that you have to do more of it for the same money as your peers. That’s garbage.
      Also, as I said below, I have ADHD and I need to be doing multiple things IN ORDER TO BE productive, and that includes surfing the web and listening to podcasts while working on other things. My productivity goes down when I limit my inputs.

      1. Autumnheart

        It especially sucks when a superior comes to expect that level of exceptional performance from you all the time, and therefore any time you drop from exceptional performance, suddenly you’re “underperforming” as though you’re actually worse than your peers, not simply meeting the same standard as your peers.

        The comment above about “I’m paying you for 40 hours of work, so I better get 40 hours of work” is a perfect example of how wrongheaded that attitude is. I’m a high performer and I take on extra work because I’m a nice person who feels engaged in my work. If an employer thinks he can *dictate* to me that I perform highly every time because that’s the norm I established for myself, and to not do so somehow cheats him out of “his” money as if I didn’t fucking earn it by providing the benefit of my labor, then guess what? Employer no longer has a high performer. If he’s paying me for the same amount of work that everyone else produces for their pay, then that’s exactly what he will receive and not a minute more.

        1. DArcy

          Any employer who demands “40 hours of work” from me without any performance incentive will get precisely 40 hours of disengaged, intentionally dead-average work. And two weeks notice as soon as a better opportunity comes along.

        2. Birch

          This mindset never made sense to me. Whose 40 hours do they want? Butts-in-the-seat hours? Some way of converting task productivity to time? People don’t work at the exact same efficiency rate. When I’m concentrating 100% I’m extremely efficient, but I take a lot of breaks because it’s frankly exhausting to be working that fast. I generally even out a bit above average time-wise. I’ve worked with people who are much slower to complete tasks than me, and others who don’t take as many breaks but work at an average pace. All at the same level. If I worked at 100% efficiency all the time, I would be doing the work of 2-3 people and would burn out in weeks. Some people work slowly. Some people work quickly and take a lot of breaks. It evens out to the same thing in the end, so this 40 hours of pay = 40 hours of work thing doesn’t make any sense at all.

    10. OldJules

      And that is how every job burns me out to the point of leaving the organization. Why should I be the busiest person on the team when the rest 3 of them have nothing to do all day, all week. Don’t do this! I need time and space for creativity work. I might be surfing the web but I could be learning how to make advances in my expertise, joining webinars to learn more or trying to solve a problem. I finally went to the leader of the org because I am sick and tired of being the go to when EVERYONE else on the team, including my manager has work-life balance. I’m at work till 7 at night busting hump when my co-worker leaves 15 – 30 minutes before their end of the day.

    11. aebhel

      Maybe. Or maybe she likes having an easy, low-stress job even if it isn’t maximally challenging. Not everyone wants to be challenged 24/7 even if they could handle it.

  4. Mediamaven

    I’m of mixed emotions about this question. As the boss, watching my employees constantly on their phones makes me crazy. And yet, this is really me (fortunately I don’t have to answer to anyone else). I am extremely fidgety, unable to sit still and am constantly bouncing between my phone and computer looking at whatever. It’s possible I have undiagnosed ADD. In any case, I’m also incredibly highly productive and can produce more in 15 minutes than many people can in 3 hours. I think the team recognizes that I work differently, but my ability to bring in business is what has made us successful. So I think it’s fine to talk to this employee about the optics, but maybe not push the needle so far that the focus is in the wrong place.

    1. Opting for the Sidelines

      I’m the same. But I have been reminded, as senior staff, what I do sets the tone for those around me. If people see me surfing the net, they will think it’s ok for them. So if I need a break to surf the web (or read AAM), I keep it on the down low.

    2. periwinkle

      I’m fidgety, too, and have probably been way too distracting over the years with my swiveling in chairs and careful destruction of paper/foam cups during meetings. Oddly enough, this only seems to be happening when I’m trapped at a desk or conference table; at home I’m not fidgety at all!

      The fidget spinner craze unearthed a whole slew of fidget toys designed for ADD/spectrum children and adults. Now I have several flippy chains to keep my fingers quietly busy during meetings or while I’m reading documents. It diverts the excess energy and helps me focus. Paper cups are safe from me now…

      1. Opting for the Sidelines

        Oh yes. I destroy all sorts of paper goods to burn off energy when out with friends. Straw wrappers beware! Folded and unfolded or rolled up in to tight little rolls. Over and over again. Peeling off beer bottle labels is another favorite target of my fidgeting. I know it drives everyone nuts around me so I have to forcibly concentrate on not doing it.

        1. Birch

          If you enjoy straw wrappers… my favorite fidget in casual restaurants is to take a plastic straw, flatten it first, then flatten it the other way (so there’s 4 equidistant creases running longways) then pinch it at intervals of a half inch down its length to create this sort of undulating pattern of folded bulges… hard to explain but really satisfying!

      2. Jules the 3rd

        I have been steal^h^h^h^h^h sharing my son’s fidget toys lately, it’s helped.

    3. Turquoisecow

      I think it’s reasonable to ask her to keep the phone activities to a minimum if she’s sitting in a meeting where higher-ups are speaking and expecting to be paid attention to. It’s not so much an issue of is she absorbing but also an issue of respect.

      Regardless of whether you’re listening to the CEO speak, it’s kind of disrespectful to stare at your phone when someone else is talking to you. I can accept that constantly flipping screens is how you work, but I’m still going to be insulted if you’re staring at your phone while I’m speaking to you, whether you’re my colleague, my boss, or I’m ten levels above you. It’s just courteous.

    4. Close Bracket

      “about the optics”

      I don’t think the lenses are relevant in this case.

  5. Shinobi

    I am Jane most of the time. I get a lot done but it’s because I work very quickly in very focused bursts and then fuck around and then work some more. When I am working I work very fast, but I can’t maintain that level of focus all day unless I have major deadlines or issues to deal with.

    That said, calling her out on her behavior in meetings is absolutely justifiable. If she needs a distraction to keep her focused (I do sometimes) doodling is commonly accepted and looks like she’s taking notes. She could also get one of those fidget pens.

    One other angle, regarding it during the work day, that I’ve had managers take with me is setting an example for others. For a while i shared a large cube with an underperforming programmer. When he saw that I spent much of my day online I guess he assumed he could do the same? Except my work was done, on time, and largely well, unlike his. But when pressed I did try to tone down how visible my non work work activities were, and try to set a schedule of designated breaks where I took time away from my visible tasks.

    1. J.B.

      I also work best in focused bursts and then need some distraction. At the same time I have gone too far in that direction and am backsliding on planning out deadlines and sticking to my calendar. I think that personally a happy medium is to have a focused work time and then to take more structured breaks.

  6. Susan Sto Helit

    #2 I really sympathise. It’s very likely that delays on the client side are not their fault either (at least not the fault of the person directly communicating with you), but that doesn’t get around the fact that it’s disruptive to your workflow.

    I think the key is to be honest about how much time you’ll need – if you have other projects that you’re working on too, it’s fine to say so. As someone who’s sometimes on the other end I really do prefer an honest assessment, because it helps me to plan too. If it’s “I’ll need 14 days for this, but I’m not available to start work until xxx”, I’d rather know that in advance than get last-minute requests for extensions because it turns out you’ve been finishing up a project for someone else and have only just got started on mine.

    Generally, I think if I book someone for a certain period of time and then am late delivering, that’s on me to make up the time later, not them. I always appreciate it when someone’s able to turn something around anyway, but I entirely understand if someone tells me they’re not able to. Occasionally that might mean I have to go elsewhere if it really is something urgent, but most of the time you work with the freelancer to find a solution. It shouldn’t do you any harm to put your foot down occasionally and remind them that they’re not your only client!

  7. esra

    Early in my career, I had a (terrible) manager complain that sometimes when he looked over my shoulder, he saw me reading articles online. This was immediately after one of our org’s largest events, the busiest time for our team, during which I completely all of my work, as well as large parts of his, and our developer’s, work.

    He was really bad at pinpointing what he actually wanted from the team, so I think Alison’s advice of focusing on the optics of it in meetings/webinars is the way to go. For him, he was stressed about anyone on his team outshining him, but he tackled it in the wrongest way. But for LW, if this person ended up just doing what they’re doing less obviously, things would probably be fine.

    1. HS Teacher

      A lot of people don’t get the difference between managing and micro-managing. As a manager, I never cared how the sausage was made. If an employee surfed the web or played Solitaire online or whatever, it didn’t bother me as long as the work from done on time and correctly.

  8. Let's Talk About Splett

    #5 – In all my years of working, “friendly reminder” signs in offices to contribute to coffee supplies, put your dishes in the dishwasher, etc. work on exactly zero people when you know who the offender is. The offender ignores the reminder if they are already getting away with it, and the people putting their fair share worry they are being nickel & dimed over splenda packets.

    1. Turquoisecow

      I’m wondering why the OP doesn’t want to single out the only person who is doing this thing. She should be singled out. She is the single person doing it, why do you want to lecture or punish others for what a single individual is doing.

      “Hey Jane, you may not know this, but we supply our own coffee supplies. Someone brings in coffee, creamer, sugar, Splenda, etc. We’ve noticed that we’re running through creamer pretty quickly, so could you pick up a quart (or other suitable size, I don’t use creamer so idk) on your way in next time?”

      Maybe you need to set these rules more clearly. Devise a schedule of who brings in what when. Because it sounds like right now it’s more like a “oh, I see we’re low on sugar, I’ll bring some tomorrow” than a “oh, it’s Bob’s responsibility this week, Bob, can you get some sugar?” Some people just literally will not ever notice or think about replenishing supplies (especially if it’s not been pointed out to them that they should) and spelling out a clear system instead of some kind of unspoken courtesy seems less likely to lead to hurt feelings like “oh, I’ve brought in the sugar the last ten times and Bob’s not done anything!” and meanwhile Bob didn’t even know he should have.

      1. Breda

        My roommates & I have an extremely low-tech system for replenishing shared goods: we have a printed-out spreadsheet on the fridge, and when you’ve bought toilet paper, you check off that square. The next time we need toilet paper, you check whose turn it is. Something that basic might work really well here.

  9. Leah

    Reading the manager’s description of her top employee I immediately thought of myself. As someone prone to spacing out and a relative ease or to tune out things due to my ADHD, I sometimes do other things to keep me focused, like drawing, or mindlessly looking at stuff on my phone. It may look like she’s not paying attention, but trust me she is! Doing these other things is her way of making sure she actually is paying attention. But I know how bad it looks from the outside; I had several teachers who didn’t appreciate my constant doodling, and even my mom worried about my productivity, even when I was the best in class.

    1. Elmyra Duff

      ^^^^^ This is me. One of my psych professors in college noticed that I had ADHD tendencies (I’ve since been diagnosed by both my therapist and PCP) and tossed me a tiny thing of Play-Doh to fidget with in class. Absolute game changer.

      1. Tongue Cluckin' Grammarian

        My psych prof used to look at my doodles (already worked for me in school and didn’t usually distract other students) when he was gathering his thoughts. He’d just casually look down at my paper for a moment, and then continue the lecture.
        I did get worried about his attention and asked him once if it was a problem that I doodled to stay focused, and he told me that he could tell I was still engaged and my grades were good. Then he told me that his looking at my doodles was more about focusing himself than distraction (instead of say, looking out the window). So it ended up helping us both!

      2. Autumnheart

        This makes me think of employee orientation at my employer, lo these many years ago. It was a week long, the first 3 days of which were a full day’s worth of lectures on various topics, split up by lunch breaks and some stretch breaks. My employer was clearly way ahead of their time, because each table had a partial set of Tinker Toys on it for people to fiddle with while they were listening.

  10. Indoor Cat

    Re #1. Not a doctor, but as someone who has some neurological differences myself, I wonder if Top Employee does too. For me, I have a sketchbook at all times and draw abstract stuff, and have done since elementary school. It actually helps me focus on language, like it distracts the non-language part of my brain, to the point where, if I do have my sketchbook, I can recite a lecture I just heard almost verbatim.

    If I’m forced to put it away, I’ll get jittery– knees bouncing, tapping the surface of a desk or table with my hands, even abruptly standing up (which can be a bit embarrassing). I can also take a much higher dose of meds than what I take now, which makes my whole body relax. It also makes me read and write more slowly, and makes it a bit harder for me to absorb and comprehend speech. I definitely wouldn’t be a top performer if I took those, but I’d look like I was paying attention more.

    I tend not to disclose my specific mental illness to people, since people tend to think of those with the most extreme / completely unmedicated version of the condition, which can be scary. The truth is, between meds, CBT therapy, meditation, and the sketchbook, I’ve been able to thrive in most work and school environments and in relationships. But take one of those four things away and it’s going to get weird.

    tl;dr, there are a lot of neuro-differences that make people want to avoid eye-contact, or make it easier for someone to listen when they’re not looking at the speaker, or to want to occupy a different “part” of the mind so that part doesn’t interrupt the train of thought that’s following a powerpoint presentation. 9/10 I’m in the camp of “be proactively respectful,” but if people are going to feel slighted that someone isn’t making eye-contact or surfs in between assignments, I lean a bit toward “the slighted people need to work on their tolerance for differences a bit.”

    1. Camellia

      “For me, I have a sketchbook at all times and draw abstract stuff, and have done since elementary school. It actually helps me focus on language, like it distracts the non-language part of my brain, to the point where, if I do have my sketchbook, I can recite a lecture I just heard almost verbatim.

      If I’m forced to put it away, I’ll get jittery– knees bouncing, tapping the surface of a desk or table with my hands, even abruptly standing up (which can be a bit embarrassing).”

      Umm, this describes me to a T. My mother dealt with it by smacking me and saying, “Cut your motor off.” As an adult I spend a lot of mental effort to control these behaviors. If you don’t mind sharing, would you tell me your diagnosis/condition? If you do ind, that’s perfectly okay, of course.

      1. Indoor Cat

        Uh, you’re probably not going to like hearing this, I have Psychotic Disorder Not Otherwise Specified. But! If you don’t *also* have occasional hallucinations, you can rule that out.

        The thing is, PDNOS basically means I have symptoms from different disorders, but not enough on any given list to say, “it’s probably this.”

        So, the symptom of a physical movement or saying a word aloud (maybe not realizing it or meaning to) in order to re-focus the language processing part of your brain is called “perseveration”. Related-but-different is “stimming,” a more repetitive physical movement, which can be something big like rocking back and forth, but can also be very small, like stroking a cloth in your pocket.

        Another symptom of these related underlying conditions is vivid daydreaming (which is not the same as a hallucination). Vivid daydreams are when a person lets their mind wander, usually into a recurring story, but this daydream is so vivid that they will react to the story inside their head physically, by laughing aloud or crying, or gesturing with their hands like in conversation. People know their vivid daydreams are not real, unlike hallucinations, and they’re more akin to watching a tv show in your head that you can switch on and off than being trapped in an unreal reality.

        This experience can become maladaptive daydreaming if it becomes addictive; there are studies that suggest that for vivid daydreamers, the regular hormones released during imagining can even become morphine-like and have analgesic effects.

        Stimming, vivid or maladaptive daydreaming, and perseverating can be a sign of OCD, ADHD, or an autism spectrum disorder. They aren’t usually signs of a psychotic disorder unless you also have hallucinations or other symptoms, like delusions or manic episodes. All those disorder also have other symptoms, so you might want to look into which ones also sound like you, and which ones don’t fit.

        The good news is, if you research specific symptoms and you find out what you have and what you don’t have, doctors can tailor treatments to what works for you. There are different combinations of meds, therapies, and holistic treatments, and there’s no single right way to do things.

        1. Camellia

          Thanks for the detailed reply! No hallucinations or manic episodes, but definitely the other things. I will look into these, see what I come up with. Thanks again!

      2. Close Bracket

        I’m not speaking for IC, but in people who are autistic, those behaviors are a type of stimming.

      3. Jules the 3rd

        I do stuff a little like this; consistently but not as extreme. I have OCD. I’m also probably on the autistic spectrum. Probably = sister diagnosed because of a list of things that I also do, but I’ve never had a formal evaluation. For me, treating the OCD addresses the non-normal behavior that interfere with my life.

        My impression is that this kind of behavior is common across people with autism / ADD / ADHD / anxiety . If it’s interfering with your life, talk to a professional if you can afford it. They can help with a variety of coping options, tailored to specific circumstances.

        Internet hugs to both of you.

        1. Indoor Cat

          Internet hug to you too.

          Honestly, one of the meds that has been proven key for me is an OCD med, so there is a connection there.

    2. JessicaTate

      These comments about multi-tasking as an accommodation to improve focus is really interesting and eye-opening for me to see another perspective on this. If this is the issue for Top Employee though, I wonder if she could find a different accommodation that would enable her to focus, but not seem so unprofessional. There is something about texting/surfing that feels especially bristling and potentially disrespectful from the optics side, as Allison said, because most people doing that AREN’T actually listening.

      Your sketching/doodling strategy, or a former colleague of mine who brought knitting/crocheting to staff meetings, which she said was mindless activity for her hands that allowed her mind to focus on what was being said. There may still be the moment of pause by those who don’t process information in that way (you’re knitting??), but as a boss, I would feel way more comfortable with an employee doodling or knitting during a meeting, rather than being on their phone.

      1. Indoor Cat

        See, yes, and that’s the vibe I get from most people. On a phone, or staring out a window tapping a foot, for whatever reason, the vibe seems rude, but sketching or knitting the vibe seems quirky or eccentric, but still respectful. I’m not actually sure why that is either, but it definitely plays out that way.

      2. Jules the 3rd

        We had a post on the knitting, the upshot seemed to be that it would be even weirder than phones in meeting situations.

        1. tangerineRose

          That surprises me. Someone who can knit well (not me, but some people) can knit without looking at the stitches and without really thinking about it, so knitting while listening seems like it would work well.

          Reading the internet on my phone is likely to bring up new topics for the brain to think of, so it seems like it would be more distracting.

          1. Spanish Prof

            Thank you! I didn’t read every single comment but so many of them seem to be conflating doodling and web surfing as equivalent when it comes to staying focused in a meeting, and that’s just not true.

            Doodling, knitting, tapping, pen spinning, etc. – these are all outputs, and they are using non-linguistic parts of the brain, making truly simultaneous multi-tasking possible. But reading webpages is input, AND it’s linguistic, just like the meeting – you’ve got one set of word-based ideas coming in through your ears (possibly eyes, too, depending on the meeting content), and another through your eyes (phone). It’s just not the same as doing something with one’s hands, and though a person can certainly control the pace of their reading to coincide with pauses in the spoken discourse, it really is a lot to ask the brain to take in, analyze, and retain.

            This is what also contributes to the feeling of disrespect. It’s not even the visible “distraction” or “off-task” appearance that doing something other than “sitting quietly and apparently listening” gives off. It’s the fact that the phone is pushing information OUT to you, and your attention to that screen implies that the information being conveyed there is more important to take in than the information being conveyed in the room, especially as a face-to-face presentation ALSO implies at least some visual elements (graphs, charts, photos, etc.). Even if an exceptional person is able to manage both input flows internally, the overall message is that I have chosen to prioritize the input my phone is providing over the one the meeting leader is providing. It’s just rude.

            A person who has difficulty sitting and tracking a passive presentation should certainly be allowed to doodle, knit, fold origami (shapes they know already and can do with relative automaticity [don’t think that’s a word]) – whatever. But reading a book, being on one’s phone, or otherwise directing their attention towards something else that is an information source besides the one you are presumably there to attend to – that’s a legitimate problem, both socially and likely cognitively.

            1. only acting normal

              This!
              I’m all about accommodating neurological differences (see username), but I’d draw the line in the same place as you.
              Doodles, origami, play dough, fidget toy (anything quiet and unobtrusive) all perfectly fine.
              A lot of workshops I go to include paper reference materials – reading those is fine, expected even.
              Randomly surfing the web, reading a book? Nope.
              Either keep it non-lexical or make sure it’s directly related to the meeting at hand.

              1. Spanish Prof

                Play-doh! What a good idea. It would certainly raise eyebrows but is exactly on-point :)

      3. Jules the 3rd

        If I get really desperate, I tap my toes inside my shoes, but that only works because I wear boxy-toed, hard shoes where the toe motion is not visible or audible.

  11. LBK

    #1 is an interesting counterpoint to the bathroom monitor letter earlier today. At what point does it cross the line from “doesn’t affect productivity so it doesn’t matter” into “the perception is so bad that it becomes relevant”?

    I’ll admit that I’m also pretty heavy on the multitasking while I’m working and I am also (by my managers’ feedback) the star employee of the team, so this one hits home for me. I think the ability to shift tasks and focuses rapidly is part of what makes me good at my job, and it’s also what allows me to mix texting, AAM, etc into my work while still being highly productive.

    Fortunately my managers are very laissez-faire about it and my day-to-day behaviors aren’t really visible outside of our department so I don’t run into the perception issue so much, but is something I’ve been called out on in jobs that had more visibility (especially when I worked in retail and if I was out of sight, it was easy for people to assume I wasn’t working). There is truth to the idea that perception is reality, and I do think it’s something that can hold someone back from advancing when it’s this blatant, even though it’s unfair and it shouldn’t matter as long as she’s knocking out a ton of high-quality work. It sucks, but it’s a conversation that should really be had with her – I was very appreciative when a former manager sat me down and told me this, even though it stung at first.

    1. Jules the 3rd

      I understand this, but I *think* the perception has been changing over the last decade or two. With people starting to realize that neurodiversity is real, and a wider understanding of what it looks like and the strengths and weaknesses, I think I’m seeing more tolerance of this kind of behavior in the workplace.

  12. Snark

    If this person is your top performer, and performs to a high level despite practices you personally find distracting or annoying, you’ve been given a great opportunity to not solve a non-problem, and I encourage you to take it!

    If you simply must have a word with this person, I think asking her not to mess with her phone when in meetings is probably a good idea, if for no other reason than it looks bad and might be offputting to people who don’t regularly work with her. But in her regular, day to day work and during generally pointless webinars? This is not a problem, and attempting to solve it would be pointless. You’re getting what you ask from this person.

    1. nep

      Employer is getting what he/she wants from this person, but perhaps wants (has right to demand, IMHO) more/better.

      1. Snark

        They’re already the top performer; this person is not merely meeting expectations. I don’t think she has the right to demand, or should encourage herself to want, yet more. If the employee were struggling and occasionally missing deadlines and details, I think it’d be totally correct to ask for more, but that’s not operative here.

      2. CleverGirl

        Employer has the right to demand better when they pony up a sizable raise and promotion. You don’t get to demand twice as much work from someone just because they are better/faster at it than the person in the cubicle next to them. An employee is not your slave. If you hire them to do a job and they are doing it well (“top performer” I believe was the term used) WHY would you think you have the right to demand more work and effort from them unless you’re willing to give them something in return?

        1. LBK

          I don’t think we have anything to suggest that the employee in question is being underpaid or otherwise undervalued.

          1. CleverGirl

            I wasn’t saying the employee was being underpaid. I was saying that if the employer thinks “hmm, my employee is spending a lot of time on the internet when they could be getting more work done!” and consequently demands more work from the employee, it better come with more compensation, since the employee is already a top performer.

        2. nep

          Not asking for double the work from this employee–just professional behaviour. For me, texting and surfing while working (be it in a group webinar or what have you) doesn’t fall under professional behaviour.

          1. Snark

            Sure. And in a group webinar, the boss does have the right to ask for more attention cues and no phone use. Buuuut, when she’s at her desk, getting a lot of stuff done really well, whether she’s presenting professionally seems utterly irrelevant.

          2. Turquoisecow

            I don’t really mind if she’s multitasking at her desk and getting her work done. But I don’t think it’s too much to ask that she look like she’s paying attention when the CEO is speaking. Regardless of whether or not she IS paying attention, it’s common courtesy to look on the general direction of a speaker when they’re speaking, especially if the speaker is their boss’s boss’s boss.

            I mean, even if I’m not your CEO, if you’re staring at your phone while I’m trying to tell you something important (or what I perceive as important), it’s pretty rude, and I don’t think I’m the only one who’s going to be put off by that.

      3. Mike C.

        This is a really low definition of “more/better”. It almost paints “web surfing” as some sort of moral flaw.

      1. Indoor Cat

        “Life is a rich tapestry!” I want an actual embroidered tapestry with that on it now. I hope it actually exists.

    2. tangerineRose

      “you’ve been given a great opportunity to not solve a non-problem, and I encourage you to take it!” This!

  13. Jaybeetee

    I am very much like the employee in #1 (I’m surfing the web at work right now!), and have been freshly diagnosed with ADHD-I. So far this has never hurt my performance, but I’m sure it looks bad at times (as does my complete inability to show up on time in the mornings…medication is pending…). I agree with the advice that coming at it from an optics angle is the best approach in her case – her work is fine, it just *looks* bad.

    1. Autumnheart

      Medication won’t make you get to work on time. It just helps you move from task to task without having to deal with all the meta-thinking about each task. (Like, “Be sure to write that down, don’t forget that thing you have later, oops look at that mess you have to clean up”.) It is not, I discovered to my disappointment, good habits in pill form. It won’t magically turn you into someone who never feels like goofing off and who suddenly loves their to-do list. Medication makes it easier to maintain good habits, but you still have to form those habits and discipline yourself to keep at them.

      I mention this primarily to manage expectations about what medication will do for you. It helps you do the work but it doesn’t do it for you, or eliminate the need for it. People without ADHD still need to-do lists and watches and appointment calendars, and have to be nagged to empty the dishwasher. I personally went off medication after a year, and basically drink more coffee while trying to keep to a good routine.

      1. Anon For Now

        In case it’s helpful – I had the exact same symptoms and an ADHD diagnosis, and medication DID get me to work on time (after about six months of being late almost every single day). Basically, it meant that I was able to avoid the molasses-effect of time-blindness in the mornings (where every single get-out-the-door task somehow stretched out into 20 minutes instead of 5). I didn’t love taking it every day, and it made my 2pm crash harder to deal with, but it was incredibly effective at getting me out the door on time. Transitioning between spaces has always been one of the hardest aspects of ADHD for me.

  14. nep

    #1 — More excellent advice and great script by Alison. It’s spot on.
    Top performer or not–Being a great and productive employee does *not* (anyway should not) give someone a pass for rude and unprofessional behaviour.

  15. You don't know me

    I actually can concentrate much better when I’m doing something else at the same time. If I had to sit and just listen to a webinar I’d die of boredom. Ok, not really die but I would certainly zone out and not pay any attention. If I was playing Candy Crush and listening to the webinar I could probably repeat word for word much of what was covered. I learn better by listening. If you show me a slide I might read it but then the knowledge would disappear. But if you verbally tell me the details, it’s like I can play it back in my head. People learn in different ways. That being said, I wouldn’t actually play Candy Crush at a meeting where others were present. I would have a notebook and I would be doodling like crazy though.

    1. Sam Winter

      It’s not a special talent to do this I think it’s time to show skills at listening and actively engaging instead of being glued to s device for entertainment.

      1. tangerineRose

        Sam, the point isn’t that this is a “special talent”. The point is that this person has found what makes it easier for them to focus, and it’s not what many people expect, so people think it looks bad.

  16. Ralkana

    I’ve told my boss about AAM, so I pretty much expected after this headline to read this letter and see thinly veiled references to me, because this is the one thing I get dinged for in reviews. I’m a top performer, but I am SO BAD at putting my phone down. I still do more work than everyone else, but it’s a struggle for me to stay off my phone. It was bad enough before, but now I’m in a leadership position, so I really have to buckle down. Hopefully, the memory of going “oh jeez, I think my boss is the LW!” will help.

  17. peachie

    #1: I’d be interested to hear from both ADHD and non-ADHD folks about how much of the day the spend actually working. I do have ADHD, but I’ve mostly gotten it under control. I’ve started using a time tracker at work, though, and I’ve found that even when I’m really caught up in work and feel like I’m working all day, my “tracked” time is still an hour or two less than my workday. I don’t really check my phone at work, and while I’ll check AAM, etc. on slower days, this seems to be the case when I’m working through the day, too. I’m sure some of it is meetings, bathroom breaks, forgetting to turn on the timer, etc., but I’m genuinely curious–how much of the day are people actually actively working? (I’m getting all my work done and tend to work extra hours anyway, but I’m interested in others’ experiences.)

    1. I Wrote This in the Bathroom

      A lot of my work is done in my head. I’m thinking over the next steps on the project I’m working on as I am typing this comment. But I agree that the optics of this are a lot worse than if I were staring at a screen filled with something worklike and furiously typing something. Which is why I would not survive in an open-office environment. I wouldn’t be able to think. All my energy would be consumed by trying my hardest to look busy every minute of every workday.

      1. You don't know me

        I like to use the phrase “I’ll let it simmer.” I’ll do a first run at my work and then take a break and walk around the building. Not sitting directly in front of the work allows my brain to “simmer on it” and I often come up with something I missed or some way I can make it better. Just because I’m not sitting and staring at a document on a computer doesn’t mean I’m not working on it.

        1. I Wrote This in the Bathroom

          My best design ideas were born while taking a walk around the office park. Sadly, I haven’t done it in a long time, because we have new time tracking policies that I suspect outdoor walks will not be compatible with.

    2. Mike C.

      This feels pretty typical. In speaking with the industrial engineers I work with (master schedulers, essentially), they tend to assume 80% of time is spend working, with breaks, meetings and whatnot taking up the remainder.

    3. 25 days left @ toxic job

      I don’t have ADHD and I’m right there with you. I get all my work done and yet I am “working” very little during the day. Even when I have a LOT of work, I usually get it done pretty quickly and with very few errors. At this point, I can’t tell if that’s because of my work style (years of writing stories made me a super super fast letter writer/press release writer/memo writer, which is a solid 70% of my job) or because my job isn’t very challenging.

      If I liked my office more and wasn’t on my way out, I’d have a conversation with my boss about it. But I’m leaving for totally other reasons, so I’m letting it simmer, as another commentor said.

    4. Turquoisecow

      I went from working retail, where the bosses were obsessed with making sure every possible second was work (no personal conversations when you’re on the clock! Walk faster! Fewer bathroom breaks!!) to working full-time in an office, and the ratio of time to productivity really seemed off to me. My boss was the type to ask conversational personal questions while training me, and had no problem derailing our training sessions to ask me a personal (non-invasive) question. My coworkers asked about my life while I was asking them for help on something. It took me awhile to move from the mindset of “omg I’m on the clock I can’t have this conversation!!” to “Hey, there are bagels in the break room, let’s go get some. No, you don’t need to clock out!”

      It’s varied a bit in different offices I’ve worked in, but none of them have been super strict about every minute. And it varies on different days – right now I’m in a slow period, which is why I’m writing long comments here :) – but I’d say something like 75-80% is actual work, subtracting personal conversations, messaging my husband, looking on the internet (AAM), bathroom breaks, etc.

    5. Ellex

      I’m not ADHD, and it depends entirely on the job. In my current job, if I actually spent all day working I’d run out of work. I dearly wish I could work from home – I’d be done in half a day and be able to go do other things. Some of my coworkers seem to struggle to do half as much as I do, and others seem to be like me. I’m not sure what the difference is.

      In my previous job, it was hard to find a moment even to check my work emails (much less my non-work emails), but I was constantly under deadline and the deadlines were often not really enough time to get the work done. In the job prior to that, I worked my ass off, but I was privy to the very direct correlation between getting the work done and getting paid/the company getting more work, so that the company could stay in business. As it is, that company eventually closed down due to outside factors that affected the entire industry.

      That said, when I’m concentrating, I’m paying full attention to what I’m doing, so it often doesn’t take that long to do. Some others seem to have trouble sticking with the task at hand for even short periods of time, so they take twice as long to do something. I think people who can sustain their concentration, even if it’s for a short period of time, tend to be more productive than those who are constantly distracted. The majority of people I’ve worked with who had trouble putting their phone down had poor productivity and poor quality of work.

    6. Anonym

      ADHD; until recently was at average* of maybe 2.5 productive hours out of 8, with consistently excellent reviews and tagged as a high performer (“future leader”). Spent much of the rest of the time distracted/guilty/frustrated at inability to focus and trying to hide it. Also, the normal conversations with colleagues, coffee, water, etc.

      Since diagnosis, and with the help of a therapist, closing in on about 4 productive hours* per day. Hoping the improvement continues. Work is good, but my emotional health still has a ways to go.

      (*the averaging is no joke; as I’m sure you can guess, it varies wildly day to day and week to week)

      A relative who’s a very senior project manager of 30+ years believes firmly that if she gets 6 hours of work out of each employee, that’s a reasonable full day’s work. 8 hours of just working is unrealistic in her view, and some of that extra time goes into interaction with colleagues, which strengthens teams and makes it easier to get things done.

    7. The Ginger Ginger

      That’s actually about the normal expectation. In the agile software development framework, when planning how long projects will take to get done, the target hours of work per day for a person is about 6 (in an 8 hour day). The rest gets taken up with, well, whatever else being a living human in an office setting requires, and also meetings :) . So you’re about on track there.

    8. Autumnheart

      I’d say you’re completely typical in terms of your tracked work and your other activities. After all, when you’re working, it’s not just about “Is my butt in my chair and am I actively completing a project?” but it’s also about being available to your coworkers to provide your expertise. Even if you were in a slow period and didn’t have a project to work on right then, you are still making yourself available *to* work. That counts.

      This is easier to categorize when it’s a job like a retail cashier, where you are clearly punched in and on the floor even if there aren’t any customers in the store. When you’re in the office, you’re “on the floor” even if you are not actively producing something for a stakeholder.

  18. nep

    Back on #1: I’m reading some comments that indicate my take might be unfair and even discriminatory. Are people saying that surfing and the like on phone or computer are serving the employee and contributing to her performance? If yes, I’m ready to reconsider my hard and fast stance noted above.

    1. nep

      (All that said, I still find surfing and texting during meetings or presentations very rude.)

      1. I Wrote This in the Bathroom

        They are, and probably are hugely distracting to the presenter as well. That’s why I prefer webinars!

      2. grace

        It is. Especially to the presenter and people who may be interested next to the person texting or surfing the web and who now many be distracted.

        It’s one thing if it’s an accommodation or already worked out with the boss that being this distracted is a necessity, but that’s not typically the case, and I think would have been mentioned here if it was.

      3. Bea

        In this case, they’re watching a video and then discussing. I think that tech during a person speaking or presenting is hella rude. But a video? Not so much.

        It helps some of us internalize things listen and not just watch someone at the same time. I do this with tv all the time. I only enjoy shows I can listen to without watching constantly. That’s what documentaries are my jam.

      4. Mike C.

        See, and what I find rude are all the numerous bad presentations that I’m forced to sit through.

        I’m no idiot yet everyone has to read directly from their massive powerpoint decks, talk down to folks, and speak as slowly as possible. It feels as though corporate communication is written at the 6th grade level and it certainly doesn’t help when you have to take super specific training that you’ll never encounter in real life because some executive got in trouble. Yes, I get it, I shouldn’t be offering jobs to people in the military who are in charge of evaluating contracts. But I don’t work with military projects, and I’m no where near in a position to do more than tell people where the online applications are located. Stuff like that.

        If we’re talking about something meaningful (workplace safety, sexual harassment awareness, etc) then you have my full and complete attention. But that’s maybe 5% of what I have to deal with.

      5. teclatrans

        Briefly: 1) Yes, that is what we are saying. (From two possible angles: 1. Needing extra stimulation to achieve focus on extended inputs like meetings, keep from jumping around or interrupting or etc., and 2) brain breaks after engaging in hyperfocus/overdrive productivity.)
        2) Optics matter. Phone surfing in a meeting is bad. Visibly spending hours online (note, I said visibly). Reading magazines at your desk is bad. (Um, that last one would be me, pre-internet and socially unaware.)

    2. Mike C.

      In part sure, but also many of us are trying to point out is that the things we are forced to do are not the only ways that things have to be done.

      For me, it’s a particular annoyance with being dragged into meetings I find out I don’t need to be in until the very end, watching training videos/webinars where the person narrating is speaking slowly and at lower grade level, presentations . For folks like us, it’s there’s extra energy that needs to be burned, and it’s going to be burned somehow (this is why many are prescribed stimulants – it really takes the edge off). So if I’m able to sit in the back and quietly play on my phone, it’s no big deal. I’ll raise my hand and participate as needed and so on.

      1. Jennifer

        That’s a good point on the extra energy. I don’t sit quietly and watch unless I’m really tired, and then uh….you can guess what happens.

    3. LBK

      It’s not so much that they’re contributing to her performance, it’s that they aren’t doing anything to impede her performance, so it seems petty and even demoralizing to police her activity that closely when she’s consistently delivering high-quality work. In other words, what would staying off her phone and not web surfing add to her performance that she’s not already giving?

      If it were clear these were distractions that were keeping her from getting work done/doing her work well, then there’s a clear cause and effect. But here it doesn’t really seem to be doing anything except helping her feel relaxed and autonomous.

      1. Jennifer

        Hear, hear. Well, sometimes people just want to make you feel like crap. That’s the goal of the last person who was nitpicking my every second of behavior.

  19. Evil HR Person

    Question #3: Your resume was #97 of all the resumes they’d received. That’s it. I used to do this when keeping track of applicants was handled manually instead of how we do it nowadays using an “ATS” (Applicant Tracking System). I wouldn’t read much into it one way or another.

  20. Elena

    I resemble comment number one. I understand that socially it’s considered less than polite because for some people it would truly be a mark of inattention. But I find that I pay a great deal more attention to the conversation and the speakers and the emotional tones of the voices if I have something to eat up the other 40% of my attention that was otherwise completely unsatisfied.

    Even as a 50 something in today’s smartphone world I still bring needlepoint to classes and such. Some teachers will freak, but others will take a look at where I am in the workbook, realize I finished reading the assignment, answered all of the mini quizzes already, and I’m just waiting for them to get on with it.

    Hopefully in our ever-more connected world, the expectation that says attendees will sit at attention with a glazed look of adoration in their eyes as they stare mindlessly at the teacher / leader will gradually fall by the wayside.

    1. Bea

      I can’t even enjoy a tv show without a cellphone game or coloring. Btw I hate adult coloring books. Ban them, gimme the Lisa Frank trash I pick up at dollar stores.

      1. Indoor Cat

        Haha! The adult color book fad was so strange. For a while they were so popular they literally topped bestseller lists that don’t differentiate by genre. Now they’re basically done and bookstores are stuck with a ton of overstock.

  21. Bea

    As a top performer myself, I have to be doing something to keep my mind from shutting down. I usually scribble, I can maybe sketch a stick figure if I think about it. I find phones in meetings rude AF.

    However if I were chastised for the actions at my desk during the time frame I’m managing myself, that’s a sign I’m not a good fit. I would leave due to the conflicts that sets up for me and the company. Fair warning, as an independent self motivated high performer, being told I’m doing something wrong in these kinds of micromanaging ways is how you lose good talent.

  22. LQ

    Ah #1. I do this, I’m trying to cut back both because of the perception of me, but more because of a perception of others “Well LQ does it and it’s not a big deal” and if the manager isn’t willing to say “Yeah well LQ puts out 5 times as much as you do with her eyes closed, hands tied behind her back, and working with the worst people in the org” then figuring a better way to set a good example is part of what I’m trying to do.

    Part of the time I’m looking up something that’s relevant and I’ll just share that. Like reading directly off the screen, or (my favorite) taking over the screen to show the answer I found to the problem people have been arguing about for 45 minutes. This showing that when I’m on my phone fairly often it’s work related has helped a lot.
    If your report is doing things like this asking her to …not quite make a show of it, but kind of, to demonstrate that some of it is work related. (Also effective for this: Sorry, I just got a text from big head top boss and I have to go handle something for him. Answering questions that people say “let’s have another meeting to discuss” with information found. etc)

    Also take apartable pens. They seem to be my favorite.

  23. ChumpwithaDegree

    At least I know this isn’t my boss because she has been with the state a few years. Otherwise, it’s me.

  24. Aphrodite

    I’m the same way, able (and indeed better) to focus on several things. Or take frequent short breaks to surf the Internet. Like now. But I buckle down when I need to, and I am always astonishing my boss with my speed and accuracy. The only difference is that he doesn’t care and I am not in a position to be seen by others–I’m in a corner office with a closed door. But at meetings or webinars I wouldn’t do it. Those have my full attention.

  25. Goya de la Mancha

    #2 – I’ve never done free-lancing, but is it worth looking into a “fee” for time past deadlines? As in there is an X% charge of the total bill for any work not received/completed by the deadline? In my own line of work (again, not free lance), I find that a fee of even $10 extra seems to light the fire under butts.

  26. Lilo

    This reminds me of the LW that asked about knitting during meetings to pay attention better. The reasoning behind it is fine, but the optica are unfortunately the main issue. Who knows, maybe in 20 years, being on your phone while listening will be the norm and just sitting there staring at the speaker may seem out of touch.

  27. Yorkshire Rose

    “How can I get clients to stick to deadlines?”

    By building milestone schedules and deadlines into your contracts with your clients. You’ll need to explicitly (table format works well) outline which tasks are client tasks and which tasks are consultant tasks, and put in a deadline for each task. Then, in your contract, you outline what the consequences are for either party not meeting a deadline.

    this is standard practice at my company and it works well. It keeps everyone accountable.

    If you’re not willing to put milestone schedules into your contracts, you’re likely going to keep running into this problem.

    1. Indoor Cat

      +1 , especially to consequences in the contract. No consequences, the deadline doesn’t mean much.

  28. Elmyra Duff

    I don’t see what the big deal is if she’s one of your best employees. The whole “no texting! no looking at the internet!” way of thinking seems absurd to me in 2018. OldJob would call us out for just having our phones on our desks during the workday. Ridiculous.

    Also, I have ADHD inattentive type. I basically cannot concentrate on important things unless I’m doing something with my hands, like scrolling through my phone, doodling, or what have you. I might look like I’m not paying attention at all, but I am! Lots of it!

  29. Anon for this

    This might actually be a tactic for her to stay engaged. I have a very difficult time concentrating unless I have a second activity to anchor me, and I’ve been getting crap for it since first grade when I started drawing in my notebooks to keep me focused on what the teacher was saying (she forced me to stop drawing, which caused my attention to totally drop, which caused my grades to drop, then I was blamed for “checking out on purpose to get back at her”). It’s an attitude that’s followed me into jobs as well and is a frequent Thing I Get Talked To About, despite frequently being a high performer and having no complaints lodged against me other than “she’s listening to music with headphones in, that’s so WEIRD of her! She’s looking at other things while I’m talking, I assume she’s not paying attention and I feel disrespected!” despite being constantly called on to try and catch me in the act of not paying attention, only to be met with me being able to recite the conversation, and participating plenty on my own when I’m not called out like this.

    I’m going to give everyone the benefit of a doubt and assume that everyone knows that people who process the world like this can’t just peace out of working and magically stay financially afloat, because we “look weird” to workers who don’t have to operate this way. I’m also going to give everyone the benefit of a doubt and assume that everyone knows that “Just try harder to pay attention!” isn’t an option and frankly, isn’t that much different that if people were to tell me to stop using my cane and just try WALKING harder, which so far no one has done. This is a tactic I need to experience the world like people who don’t have ADHD do. It’s like my cane. It’s like glasses. It’s like a wheelchair. It’s necessary, and right now the problem isn’t that I’m doing it but that other people are making all kinds of incorrect assumptions and judgements about it. I understand that other people might look at this and see think that it’s disrespectful but until you’re telling me I’m disrespectful for making loud sounds when my cane hits the ground, understand that this is totally necessary for me and frankly, Cerseis, Sansas, and Jeoffreys: My numbers are better than yours.

    1. MissDissplaced

      And then they put us all in horrible noisy, busy open office workspaces where we have to sit working at computers 9 hours a day and tell us “no headphones!”
      Good God, but is it any wonder the modern workplace is driving people bonkers?
      It’s NOT normal! It’s NOT healthy either mentally or physically!

  30. Brett

    #1 Because it is state government, I think it is important to address the personal email on work email and surfing on her laptop (presumably on the government intranet). This are not just an issue of optics, those policies are in place for specific reasons.
    When she sends personal email on her work email, it becomes discoverable through sunshine laws. It also opens up small but significant security risks. (At old job, our entire network was taken down for a week and databases had to be restored from backup because a developer with admin rights opened up a personal email that had an extremely aggressive worm attached to it.)
    When she surfs on her laptop, this creates a trackable (and in some cases sunshine law discoverable) trail of her personal browsing. That’s a personal risk to her. No one wants to be on the news because they showed up on a list of state employees who browsed personal websites during work hours But she also significantly raises the risk of accidentally accessing a high risk site and creating a security incident. (There might be a similar risk to browsing on her phone if she is using wifi.)
    Some policies are for productivity and optics, but other policies are there for security and personal privacy.

      1. Brett

        Amazes me that chat transcripts are not FOILed more often. They normally are open records and would probably reveal much much more than emails would.

        1. Lynn Whitehat

          The chair of our school board recently stepped down after her chat records were FOIAed. She was talking about how they needed someone “with the balls to stand up to the crazy ignorant community activists and poverty pimps.” Yeah.

          1. 25 days left @ toxic job

            wow ok mine aren’t that bad! It’s mostly me complaining about how loudly my co-worker chews.

  31. 25 days left @ toxic job

    WOW if #1 wasn’t buried in the archives and written by a new manager I’d be concerned it was about me. I’ve had nothing but positive feedback in performance reviews, but I also surf the web a lot (partly because there’s just…not much to do!) It helps hearing other commenters say that they also need to do multiple things at a time, and having lots of stuff going on at once or surfing the web doesn’t automatically make one a bad employee.

    On a related note, I should probably make it a priority to find a more challenging job.

  32. CPAlady

    I have ADHD and I’m wondering if the report #1 is talking about does to. Because she is describing me and frankly I CANNOT focus without 800 things going on, and my productivity goes DOWN if I’m asked to have only one thing open.

  33. The New Wanderer

    The thing about multitasking is that you typically can’t do it within the same perceptual channel (disclaimer: I’m not aware of studies of multitasking ability in ADHD people but for non-ADHD people, there’s quite a bit of research on this; “Myth of Multitasking” and related works). So, texting/writing and reading unrelated material while trying to listen to a speaker are tasks that use the same verbal channel and they conflict. You can take notes on what you are hearing fairly easily, but that is using the same source information. It’s much more challenging to write something completely unrelated to the thing you are listening to and do either thing well until you ignore one or the other task.

    Scribbling, doodling, playing Sudoku and other non-word based games, fidgeting, knitting, and staring out a window don’t conflict with taking in auditory/verbal information. The optics don’t look good for most of those things even though they can definitely help focus attention. But I’d argue that texting and websurfing are worse because most people really cannot listen to one topic and text or read something entirely different at the same time, and their attention is almost certainly going to be on the more interesting (to them) task, which is not the listening one.

    1. CMart

      For me, this is 100% accurate. I can only listen to/read one thing at a time, otherwise the words of anything else are completely lost to me.

      I can’t multitask. I can multi-prioritize, though. That is–jump from one thing to another to another back to the first back to the third. I think that’s what the Pomodoro technique is built around. Only spending a little bit of time on any given task before pivoting to a different one keeps me much more efficient than attempting to knuckle down and do one thing for 5 hours straight. But I’m not actually attempting to do all those things simultaneously!

      1. Jennifer

        I can listen to one thing at a time. You cannot focus your ears very well.
        I can switch back and forth between things I read, because you can focus your eyes better.
        I can read while someone talks, I just try not to read anything that requires real thought/concentration.

    2. Jun Aruwba

      Eh, the fact that studies indicate *most* people don’t benefit from doing this doesn’t really dispute anything anyone here is saying. If 81% of people cannot multitask in a study, which is an overwhelming majority, that still leaves 19% (almost 1/5) of people that can. I think the biggest weakness of data (of any kind) is that it tends to convince people that if you have an overwhelming majority that fits into Result A, you can safely ignore Result B, even though in some cases 1/5 of all study participants can end up being a REALLY big number of people!

  34. Ruthie

    The letter about the surfing could very easily be about me. I am a top performer, and one of the reasons is that I am always on my phone and laptop multi-tasking. It very rarely, if ever, is for something personal/outside of work. The only time I read this blog, for example, is on my way to and from the bathroom.

    But I’ve been trying hard to turn everything off in meetings so people understand I am giving them the attention and respect they deserve. Even if I’m hearing everything while I’m looking at my computer.

  35. sapphiredragon

    #4 – I am the go to person on my team and everyone is here in the same office as me. I am also the low man on the totem pole, but that means I have my fingers in all the projects a little bit. I’ve also been here longer than most of the managers, a couple of the directors, and our new VP. People on other teams point to me as the go-to, even people ON my team suggest me as the go-to. Like Alison says, this frees the higher-ups to do their own jobs and not need to field every question pertaining to the team. I like that everyone has the confidence that I won’t steer them wrong, and I feel like I’m making a positive contribution to the organization.

  36. Nanani

    No 1: This is your TOP PERFORMER. Let them be. Let go of your issues about phones. There is no issue here.

    If, and only IF, it causes a real distraction, then address that distraction and only that distraction. I mean something like light/noise from devices disrupting a group meeting, not just “optics” or “your personal feelings about phones.”

    If you bug your top performer about little things that, again, are not harming their productivity, you will probably see less productivity from them and likely lose them altogether to a new job where people don’t police them over optics.

  37. Sagacious

    OP should sit this one out. You are talking about “hands down, the best performer in your group.” If that person squeezes in some texts or personal websurfing, so what? It’s likely the social connectivity turbocharges his performance.

  38. Dotty

    #1 I’m torn.
    I’ve always tried to focus on productivity not how time is spent but lately I’ve found that just doesn’t cut it. There is almost always more work that can be done – someone might be a top performer but if they have time to spend surfing the internet to that extent then you’re not getting the best out of them. What about extra things she could be taking on to help the company grow or run more smoothly. There is nearly always more work to be done and why would you want to spend so much of your life as a working week mindlessly surfing the web.

    Also optics matter – maybe you have some really good if not top performers working long hours seeing someone getting paid to surf the internet – that’s going to impact their morale especially if it’s allowed to continue on long term. Sure we all have times where we need a quick break and a look at something else but from OP it sounds like much more than that.

    1. AnonymousInfinity

      When you have a productive, high performer who is hitting all the metrics and knocking it out of the park, assigning that employee extra work for the sake of “you MUST BE doing work!” is a fool proof way to burn talent. It’s almost a punishment, and you’ll get people (admittedly, like me) who think, “So, I do all this great work for you effectively and efficiently, while running circles around my peers, and my reward is being assigned random extra work (without a raise)?” And…gone (or learning how to be really, really good at fake-working).

      If you’ve got a great employee who hits all the marks and does excellent work in half the time it takes his/her peers, consider assigning the employee more challenging work in an official capacity – a promotion. They’re underemployed.

  39. Ruby

    This could have written about me at old job, except “is exemplary employee who comes in late.” I couldn’t for the life of me get to work on time (on a military base, so ID checks with long lines were common) and if I was late, I stayed the appropriate amount of time later in the day. I was constantly badgered about this, even though I was THE BEST person in the office at my job. I eventually left and now have a super flexible work schedule. Don’t miss old job one bit.

    1. Ruby

      I should mention that arriving “on time” had no impact on my work as we were not a customer or metrics based office—just a regular office where people came in at different times during the morning, but god forbid you be 5 minutes late due to traffic.

  40. Keep Your Eyes On The Prize

    Huh, we were training a new person this week. She never got beyond the first week because every time someone tried to show her or teach her some aspect of the job, she was texting. Maybe she thought she was paying attention but it came across as disinterested in learning.

  41. Lentils

    Hah, this sounds like me at my old job, which was menial work that I happened to be really good at. When I started it, it was a basic level transcription job, and they expected each “task” (~50-200 lines of audio/transcription to check) to take a person 30-60 minutes. I could do them within 15-45 depending on what kind and how complicated they were. So what I would do was have one window with the transcription software open and then a blog or fanfic or whatever in another window, so I could read as I worked. Alternatively, I’d do 1-2 tasks and then spend a few minutes of downtime listening to a song or watching a video or something, since I was ahead of schedule anyway. I was definitely doing 10-12 hours’ worth of work in my 8 hour days. Some people are just good at multitasking! I agree that the real issue here is that it’s distracting to others, but IMO it’s not an issue if the employee can do it without distracting someone else.

    However, I am kind of appalled that this person hasn’t been more subtle about it. Geez, it’s so rude and also stupid to be blatantly messing around in meetings, where people can see you! Maybe it’s just because I’m very good at hiding my secret writing/reading/doodling/whatever, but it frustrates me when other people get caught doing something they’re not supposed to at work, just because they didn’t hide their rule-breaking better. If you’re gonna do it, be smart about it!

  42. TKMG

    My senior director (boss’s boss) is exactly like this person. She always appears distracted – texting on her phone, not looking at the materials for meetings, chit-chatting with people sitting next to her – and then it turns out that she has absorbed ALL of the information and found key insights/questions that no one else has thought of. It is almost infuriating, but her skill level is incomparable, and I’ve learned a lot from her. My coworkers and I just ignore the texting/distractions and understand that she is paying attention and getting work done, even if it appears otherwise.

  43. Nacho

    This is basically me. I’m literally twice as productive as anybody else on my team, but I spend a quarter my time at work surfing the internet instead of working (like right now). I have pretty heavy ADD, so I pretty much cycle between maniac bouts of work when the mood hits me, and web surfing when I get tired of that.

    Obviously if it interferes with her work, it needs to stop, but if she’s productive, and that’s what she needs in order to be productive, then I don’t see the harm in it.

  44. AnonymousInfinity

    OP #1 – I’m a high performer and incredibly productive with no problem self-starting and working ahead…until I’m not busy. During the summer in particular in my industry, I might get three emails a day, and most people are gone, and work is too calm and quiet. I usually only have one or two projects idling on the burner, and I just. Can’t. Get. Going. Looking at my phone, emailing, looking at news sites and AAM – all of that builds in busy-ness for me that helps me be that productive, high performer, and I’ll cycle back and forth between non-work and work stuff to simulate a normal, busy work flow.

    I keep it on the down-low, though (no one can see my screen, for one; the phone thing is harder to hide), and it doesn’t interfere with my work. Optics matter.

  45. Media Monkey

    in my first job (pretty dysfunctional company but they were very hot on training) new entry level employees got trained in “active listening”. as we are in a client facing job with a lot of face to face meetings, looking like you are paying attention and are actively interested is an important skill (i can assure you that by no means all meetings are interesting). is that something you could consider?

  46. Oilpress

    #1 – The problem is that too many people consider themselves a top performer and thus justified in distracting themselves constantly with non-work tasks. Making exceptions for your true top performer opens the door to many others expecting those same exceptions because they think they are top performers themselves. Just look at the comments on this post. How many people consider themselves top performers who deserve special treatment?

    Also, if your average employee is giving you a B or C level performance, and your top performer is giving you an A- performance, should you really just leave it at that and not try to bump them up to an A or A+? Even LeBron James needs coaching.

  47. Chellie

    My husband is a state employee who spends a lot of his day quietly doing non work activities. He is extremely capable and would probably be described as as high performing, but only relative to the other yahoos in his office. He would actually LIKE to work all day, but he doesn’t have enough work to do. In fact, he was assigned to this role because in his previous (state) position, he inadvertently drew attention to his supervisor’s incompetence and leadership’s unwillingness to follow its own policies.
    As a manager and a human being, I would encourage you to notice that public bureaucracies can be soul crushing places to work and the employee may have few alternatives. Instead of worrying about her “distracting” others, what if you thought about how she could have something to do that’s meaningful enough that she has less interest in texting? Not More Boring Work as a punishment, but a real attempt to meet her needs. I know that there is limited flexibility in the state, but it is not impossible, and figuring a way around The System is really really important when you work in it.

  48. OldJules

    I was/am the employee in letter 1. The more stressed out I am, the more I web browse, to give me mental breaks. It helps that I am a speed reader. I had a terrible boss that started making me track my every 15 minutes. Notice how I no longer work there. It’s amusing to me that once I left, they had to hire 2 employees to take over all of my work. Am I producing massive amounts of work? If so leave me alone. I am trying to kill the phone in meetings habit but with little children, I can’t just leave the phone at my desk. But I am trying to take the phone and hide it under my work pile or in front of my screen so that I can’t see it. Don’t give me more work than my co-worker. I’d end up resenting the crap of my team when they can leave on time or earlier but I’m still at work a couple of hours later. I will move on.

  49. Anastasia Beaverhousen

    When I was teaching I had a student once that was constantly drawing when I was teaching. When this happened I would usually ask them a question here and there about what we were talking about. Typically, they didn’t know what I’d just said and I’d ask them to put it away. This girl, I tossed her a few questions to test her attention level, she answered every question perfectly and without even looking up. Never said a word to her about the drawing. If she can draw and still pay attention, comprehend, and get everything done then more power to her.

    1. Wells

      I was that student! In small seminar classes, I would usually give the instructor a heads up that I knew it was annoying, but that I couldn’t focus without scribbling. I usually managed to prove pretty quickly that I was still on the ball.

  50. Elle Kay

    #1….As a former state employee this is totally normal. I realize I don’t know your state or dept but in all my positions the work came in ebbs and flows. Sometimes you’re waiting on an answer from another dept, etc, etc.

    I was this person. On personal email, websites, etc all the time and still the most highly productive staff member who actually did my job. (Yes I”m still bitter) I left eventually left b/c I was still so bored most days.

    So yes, definitely address the in-meeting things (did employee need to be in the webinar?) but unless performance starts to slip I wouldn’t worry about it.

  51. Wells

    I have never felt so worried that my boss was the author of a letter as I did reading the “Top Performer Constantly Texts” letter! I used to work independently from home, so I got used to checking everything all the time. Now that I’m in an office environment I’ve tried to cut back, but especially when I’m anxious I just automatically cycle through various websites/games/apps. I get excellent evaluations and got a significant promotion after just one year on the job…. but yeah. This is a sticky habit for me!

  52. Cecile

    She probably has ADHD. I have had to learn not to do that myself. I turn out great work, but it never looks like I’m working. But I want to keep my job, so I hand over my iPad to my boss twice a day, and limit myself to five minute bursts every 4 hours or so (Hi!).
    Doing something else is a way to focus for us. I know it sounds weird, but it works. But for me, it was too much, limits needed to be set.

    1. ADD Nerd

      I have the exact same issue and also have ADD — I need to do something to occupy enough brain capacity so that I can focus on boring issues. I tend to compulsively play solitaire on my phone during those kinds of meetings in order to be able to pay attention.

      A fidget spinner has helped me — another friend of mine knits – I found knitting too distracting myself(I compulsively count all the stitches), but anything that doesn’t take too much brainpower and is doing something helps! I also sometimes put old tv reruns on in the background of my computer.

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