my employee plays games and uses his phone during downtime

A reader writes:

I have a business analyst on my team that spends a lot of his time working on very large spreadsheets, consolidating, and analyzing information. Due to the size and nature of the work, a lot of times he will need to set the spreadsheet to do a specific job and then will simply need to wait for it to load for 3-5 minutes. This will happen multiple times an hour, so the waiting time can add up.

During this time, I’ve noticed him on his phone, reading things, or playing games waiting for the spreadsheet to load. He already has a top of the line computer so I can’t think of other resources to make his job faster; waiting is a part of his work. I think the perception in the office and my own perception is that he’s on his phone too much. Even though I know what’s going on, I can’t help but feel he is not being as productive as he could be during those waiting times and I don’t like the idea that he can play phone games while on the clock. If I were to tell him to put his phone away, he’d still need to wait for the sheets to load and it completely locks the computer up when it’s loading, so there is not other work that can be done while something is loading. How would you address this, is there anything to address, and should I let him continue to use his phone as he does or tell him to put it away and essentially ask him to look at a blank screen while it loads?

It would be pretty horrible to tell him that he has to sit there and stare at a blank screen just because of what other people might think.

I think you’ve got to sort out your own thinking here: You’re saying that you feel he’d be more productive if he put his phone away, but at the same time you’re saying that waiting is part of the work and there’s nothing else that he could be doing with that time.

If he’s taking longer than he should to get back to the spreadsheet once it’s loaded, then certainly you can address that.

But otherwise you’d be penalizing him for something that isn’t fair to penalize him for. And you won’t retain professional adults who are good at this work if you impose an arbitrary rule on them that has nothing to do with their actual productivity. Those sorts of rules signal that you don’t trust people to manage their own time or not slack off.

Plus, making someone sit and stare at a blank screen for large parts of the day is a good way to ensure you won’t retain smart people who crave intellectual stimulation — whereas giving them trust and flexibility is a good way to keep them.

I do think you could reasonably ask him not to play games while he waits because games will read pretty blatantly as “NOT WORKING AND DON’T CARE WHO KNOWS IT!” to people who don’t know the situation (especially visitors to your office, higher-ups, etc.), whereas being on his phone or reading could feasibly be work-related or a quick break. But don’t give him a hard time about those last two if there’s really nothing work-related for him to do.

{ 262 comments… read them below }

  1. The Artist Formally Known As UKAnon

    Tbh, OP, if I had to wait for 3-5 mins for something and was told that I still had to look productive, I would be drinking an awful, awful lot of tea…

    If his standard of work is acceptable then trust him to manage his time.

  2. Lizabeth

    Please, please, please double check with your IT department to make sure his computer is maxed out as far as RAM. If it isn’t, get it done, it will make a HUGE difference on lag time. I don’t do spreadsheets but do a lot of Photoshop and having the RAM maxed out makes a world of difference :)

    1. M-C

      Actually, I’d hire someone besides the current IT department, which clearly is only doing the most basic maintenance… There’s no excuse for spreasheets that huge. Any kind of decent database would solve the problem right off. Please, join at least the 20th century :-)..

      1. McAnonypants

        Even when you have that skill set in the area of IT that’s providing hardware, maintenance and upgrades to people’s computers, if they’re wise they won’t touch someone other group’s custom database with a ten foot pole.

      2. Natalie

        Of course, that often has to come from the top. Sometimes you end up in an organization that is wedded to giant (and redundant!) spreadsheets and just will. not. change. as long as Excel is still being supported. Sigh.

        1. Nashira

          Like one I maintain that I’m tempted to change to a simple Access db, except nobody but me would be able to maintain it or use it, and I won’t be here in a year or so. Computer illiteracy for the lose.

          1. Elizabeth West

            We had that problem at Exjob. The person who maintained the Access database I used left, and I had to figure out stuff by myself (thank God for googling). I made sure I documented all my procedures step-by-step so when I was out of the office, people could do my stuff. When they laid me off, the sales reps had to do it themselves. Of course, they may have chucked my database, but it was set up to print packing slips, etc., which was pretty sweet.

        2. Stranger than fiction

          Yeah, about 80% of my job involves spreadsheets even though we have a database (old on premise darabase). I don’t have any that I have to wait for them to load so I can’t speak to the technicalities of that, but when your job is staring at spreadsheets most of the day, you need eye breaks and mental breaks…which is why I’m here in AAM frequently. But phone use is just not a big deal here as long as you’re getting your shit done.

      3. super anon

        a very significant part of my old job was to build a database with thousands of entries that would be updated each year with thousands more entries. i wanted to build it in access but i was told to do it in excel because my bosses didn’t understand how to use access, and had no desire to learn. they also said it needed to be “easy” for the next person in the role to use in case they didn’t know how to use access (why you would hire someone to maintain your database who can’t use access i don’t know, but hey, i don’t do hiring).

        all this to say, IT or the person making the database likely have no control over what program is used. it’s most likely a directive coming from the people on top.

      4. Foxtrot

        I wouldn’t say there’s no excuse for spreadsheets that large unless you know the job. I used to have an engineering job that would monitor electrical current every 1/10th of a second and dump it in a spreadsheet. After a few hours, the data file was huge but there was no reason to have that information in a database. It just needed to be in excel for ease of making graphs.

        1. AcademiaNut

          Even there, there’s no real reason to need a spreadsheet. I deal with large data sets in my job, and for something like that, we’d write the data to a well defined binary format, and then read and plot it using python, or analyze using C first for more extreme cases where python is too slow. We don’t use spreadsheets for anything other than expense reports, and databases are generally used after the data are processed and ready for scientific analysis – there’s definitely no reason to put intermediate data in a database.

          I’ve dealt with data files that were too large for my computer’s RAM and had to be read and analysed in chunks, back in my thesis days, and these days, it’s easy to get terabytes of raw data in a single round of data collection.

    2. BeenThere

      OP you say that I can’t think of other resources to make his job faster, well it’s your lucky day I have a few ideas on that front based on the limited info from the post. If you have tried any of these or they are out of budget please ignore me! I am a software engineer taking a break before I start my next new exciting job ( Thanks to AAM!! ) and am spending my spare time doing small things to help other people where I can :)

      I’m thinking that either spreadsheet may not be the best tool for their job if it constantly requires that sort of downtime to run or it may not be best to run on a desktop you might need to run this on a server.

      For the server option talk to your IT department. The employee can use remote desktop to access a server to run these things, which would also free up their machine to do other work. There are so many options for more powerful machines to run these types of things. Spinning up something on cloud based architecture, google “amazon web services”, where you only pay for the minutes you use of processing power could be another option.

      It sounds like this employee is smart and motivated so the other option might be them learning some better simulation/modelling skills to make the spreadsheet more efficient or moving away from the spreadsheet altogether. Teaching them some programming skills in math inclined language like R or Python could be a good start (I’m not sure what domain your problem falls in). If they are doing this in excel and not using VBA that might be another option to speed it up. I’ve seen some absolutely awful models in spreadsheets that are run with the cut and paste type macros that would be 100 times faster if written in VBA. This is coming form someone who despises VBA. Alternatively any of the BI Tools out there might run the simulation/calculation faster as some are designed to only recalculate what changes and store the already calculated results.

      1. Chinook

        A someone who has worked with an IT programmer to slay spreadsheets (and reduced my workload by half – let’s just say I am creatively finding other tasks to fill my time before someone figures that all the jobs I was hired to do have been replaced due to in-house programs), OP should definitely have a good programmer talk to the employee about setting up a program. If they work together and do cross training with others, this could definitely benefit the company.

        That being said, there are still times when I sit and wait for the program to update and/or process a report. I don’t think lad time will ever disappear.

    3. Marcela

      They could also use a SSD disk in that machine. I installed just a hybrid in my laptop and the difference was unbelievable, my laptop felt like a new one. And I don’t use windows, so my OS do not degrade over time.

    4. themmases

      I agree. Whether a computer is ‘top of the line’ really depends what it is being used for and I wouldn’t assume that just because the computer is the best that can be purchased off the shelf, it’s the best possible. The existing computer may be able to be modified, a better solution could be built, or this process could be run on a server.

      I would also seriously question whether spreadsheets are the right tool for a business analyst to be using all day. Analytic tasks can be done much more efficiently in a database, stats package, or, in the case of SAS proc sql, an unholy combination of both :) Since the delays are short, it sounds like upgrading his computer or software to eliminate them would be a better solution than getting a second computer that will only be used for 3 minutes at a time.

      One of my jobs is in data management and analysis, and while SAS never locks up my computer unless I executed something wrong, my GIS sometimes does. I never worry about being on my phone at those times because I work in a research methods core and people walking by know how it goes even if they don’t know me yet. If that many people in the office don’t understand the employee’s job or why he has downtime, maybe those misunderstandings are also affecting whether he has the appropriate tools for his job. Just a thought.

    5. OP Manager

      Thank you Lizabeth, after reading through these comments I definitely agree that I need to take a deeper dive into the technical/ IT side of things. He is currently using Excel, and from my basic understanding of the hardware he has a powerful processor with a lot of RAM, (he also agrees that his computer is performing at a high level) it does seem like we are reaching the limits of Excel and that there is another software/server solution out there that would reduce the amount of downtime. I will be speaking with our IT resources to see what other solution there might be.

      1. Observer

        The question to ask – him and IT – is not whether the computer is working well, but what specifically could be done to speed things up. Where is the bottleneck? The two most common things are extra RAM and an SSD, but if the analysis includes rendering graphs, it might make sense to check out if he could use a better video card / video RAM.

        1. CreationEdge

          It could also be a networking or infrastructure issue if the spreadsheets aren’t stored locally.

          Lots of stuff to look into!

  3. AMG

    the data took 20 minutes or so, you could get him a second computer. I wonder if it’s worth passing on the perception of fiddling with his phone. Could use that time to go to the restroom, check voice mail, organize paperwork?

    I see where it would not help morale to tell him he has to be doing something literally every second of the day, but OTOH, I would NOT want people thinking I goof off all day. If he’s like me, would it help to explain that while you will run interference, he may want to plan for some busy work to do while he’s waiting?

    1. AndersonDarling

      I used to have a set up with a second computer that I would remote access to run reports. But the computer was stashed in another office and IT would frequently come in and try to ditch it. Strange, strange arrangement.

    2. Anon Accountant

      Right. If this is taking a substantial amount of time it may be worth looking into a second computer or another solution. Can the reports be condensed so 1 large report can be run at once instead of multiple times an hour?

    3. Anonsie

      On the other hand, several breaks a day, throughout the day, every day, in which you must actually be working on that task again in between to get to the next break point? I definitely wouldn’t have anything I could use to pad out that much time that could also be effectively done in such tiny bursts, personally.

  4. Brett

    Realize this is not going to keep your employee happy….

    But from an IT resource perspective you can have machines that will not lock up while loading a large spreadsheet, and you can always add more machines to allow him to work on multiple projects at once. My current main machine is 32-cores with 96GB RAM and solid state drives; pretty hard to lock that up no matter what I throw at it. The 96GB is actually there to load all my major datasets into RAM when I boot up every morning, so that load times are very brief. My backup machine is still a solid 8-cores 18GB RAM too and can handle a lot if I actually have to wait on something on the other machine. The main machine is hooked into 4 monitors (so I have desktop space to work in if I have a long running process or three) while the backup also has 2 monitors.
    Those two machines plus six monitors ran less than $10k total, but allows me to work non-stop without any machine related issues if I want.

    And my setup is not the “worst” in our area. We have a whole team of people who typically have 6-12 monitors running with 4-8 computers hooked into them (because of network isolation). The computers they use are cheap desktops, with the monitors being the main cost (but still under $5k for the entire rig). They do have to keep pretty continuously busy for 10 hrs shifts 3-4 days a week.

    The reality is that while I can have peak levels of work that max out these machines, if I kept working at that peak level 60 hours a week I would be exhausted and completely burnt out very quickly. That other team? Constant peak level functioning is part of the job. Because of this they are actively monitored for stress (including daily direct observation) with mandatory breaks and time off to keep them functional.

    1. MommaTRex

      I wouldn’t assume the employee won’t be happy if someone solves the problem with his computer locking up.

      1. Wren

        Agreed. When I was interning and spending most of my work day preparing engineering drawings, it drove me nuts waiting for my computer to load big drawings. Towards the end of my time there, I found out that there were people who had better computers and did less graphic-heavy work, and was super annoyed that nobody had thought to give me a better machine.

        I also want to add to the general skepticism that this is actually the best machine for the job, or that a spreadsheet is the best way to handle the job.

  5. Elizabeth West

    No, IMO there is nothing to address.

    I’ll be honest–if you made me put my phone away while I was waiting for a spreadsheet that locked my computer and I literally could not do anything else while waiting except stare at a blank screen, I would find another job. I myself do not thrive under that sort of micromanagement, and I doubt many others would either.

    What is the employee supposed to do for 3-5 minutes? It’s not enough time for him to start something else even if he could. If he gets right back to work once the sheet is loaded, you do not have a problem. Let him manage his own time like an adult.

      1. ThursdaysGeek

        The time it takes to switch tasks can easily be more than 3-5 minutes. So working on something else in that time might make him less efficient, rather than more. I use AAM while waiting for something to run (I wonder how long this report takes, anyway?) because if I switch to something else, I’ll get involved it it, and lose track of this task. If I know it will take a long time, I can plan to switch to something else, but for 3-5 minutes, switching is a bad idea.

        1. Elizabeth West

          Yeah, I kind of thought that myself as I was posting–playing on the phone for five minutes takes way less concentration than going from one task to another, unless said task is really mindless.

    1. Anon Accountant

      Same here. I’d view this as micromanagement. If I wasn’t doing my work that’d be something to address. But during a few minutes down time there’s only so much reorganizing your desk, etc. that you can do.

      If there’s truly nothing else I could do but stare at a blank screen I’d be looking for another job too. Worked under micromanagers and cannot work well in that environment either.

    2. Turtle Candle

      Completely agreed on both parts. I wouldn’t mind being told, “Hey, when you’re waiting for the spreadsheet to unlock, can you read or catch up on feeds or something instead of playing games? The Angry Birds is a little distracting to your coworkers.” But being told, “You can’t work because your computer is literally unresponsive, but we need you to stare at a blank screen on principle,” basically, would make me go job hunting in a hurry. Both because I’d feel punished for something that wasn’t my fault, and because it would signal a prioritizing of appearance over function to a degree that would make me uncomfortable. (And I am generally a person who agrees that appearance is important, so, yeah.)

      I also am trying to think what kind of work would be possible to begin and complete in 3-5 minute chunks, even if there was a secondary computer to switch to. It seems like “load spreadsheet, switch to/open/unlock secondary computer, get brain into position for other task, do other task while keeping an eye on the spreadsheet, switch back” would eat up most of the 3-5 minutes all by itself. I temporarily used two computers when I was running builds on one, but those were in the 20 minute range, where I could knock out a few emails or something. If it were 3-5 minutes, there wouldn’t have been time to do anything of any substance at all.

      1. Ife

        I agree, depending on the type of work he’s doing, it could be very difficult to shift focus that way. In my type of work, I find it takes me at least 10-15 minutes to switch into a different project. Then it would take another 10-15 minutes to switch back to the original project, remember what I was doing, and be productive.

        I can think of some tasks where you could legitimately be productive during those 3-5 minutes. Something like scanning, filing, reading emails (but only if they don’t need a long answer), jotting down notes about projects, etc — things that don’t take a lot of concentration. Does he have 40+ minutes worth of this per day though? I don’t think I have even 40 minutes of this per week in my current job, but at a previous job this could take up about 2-4 hours per day.

        1. JM in England

          I’m on the autism spectrum and would have similar difficulties to you, Ife. My conditions means that it takes me longer to switch between tasks, as well as taking longer to recover from interruptions………….

    3. Spooky

      Same here. This would be pretty insulting, and for no reason. What else is he supposed to do? He’s an adult, and a good employee – treat him like one or lose him.

    4. INTP

      Agree. Maybe this is a temperament thing, but it would really stress me out to be required to spend my 3 minute breaks looking for ways to appear productive Just Because.

      Constant productivity isn’t a reasonable expectation for someone in a cerebral job anyways. I know this is a hard thing for managers to grasp sometimes when they come from other fields where productivity = butt in seat (or on the restaurant/retail floor, or phone on ear, or whatever). But when you are thinking and analyzing all day, a few minutes of something mindless like candy crush or neko atsume or that uses a different part of your brain like pinterest can actually be refreshing and beneficial (especially versus spending the 3 minutes switching gears cognitively to another task only to switch right back). Not to mention that a requirement to constantly LOOK productive adds a stress far beyond just removing those little breaks, because not only do you have to think about what you’re doing, you have to think about what it looks like you’re doing.

      If it’s really causing interpersonal problems for other people to witness this, OP can encourage the employee to kill time on his computer instead of his phone, but that will only increase the lag time.

        1. KarenD

          My little Japanese cats thrive on company time. I haven’t caught Frosty yet, though.

          I am in a creative field, and I work in bursts. I will power through something and then take a few minutes to read AAM, play a scene of a hidden-object puzzle, browse Buzzfeed, etc. But I hit ALL my deadlines and my productivity is high.

          Thank heavens my boss works the same way. There are times when I go into his office and he’s debating the roster decisions of his favorite baseball team or trading Star Wars theories. He puts that stuff aside immediately when there’s work to be done, but we both benefit from a little mental sorbet between tasks (or when the system is frozen). The directive from On High is “Please use headphones when watching videos on YouTube and only play games on your phone, not your computer, as that can look bad.”

          1. Koko

            Yes, this is so critical. The “breaks” that creative professional take are not downtime – they are part of the creative process. You can’t force inspiration to strike when you’re staring at a blank page/canvas just because, hey, it’s between 9am and 5pm and those are work hours!

          2. BananaPants

            I’m not a creative type, but an engineer – I absolutely need frequent short brain breaks. Working flat out for hours on end is very mentally exhausting and I’m less productive and innovation takes a nosedive. Sometimes a problem needs time to percolate while I do something else. A boss who was so micromanaging wouldn’t be my boss for long; I’d find a new job.

      1. ThursdaysGeek

        +1000 to the benefits of using a different part of your brain periodically! A walk to the toilet or looking at the newspaper in the break room can make me more efficient than sitting in my chair looking at a screen 100% of the day. When I’m staring at a problem and can’t figure it out, taking a break is often the best way to make the light bulb come on.

        1. Panda Bandit

          Exactly. If Archimedes hadn’t decided to take a bath it would probably have taken much longer to figure out a way to tell if the goldsmith had cheated the king.

      2. Doriana Gray

        Constant productivity isn’t a reasonable expectation for someone in a cerebral job anyways.

        This! If I could do nothing but stare at my screen all day, along with doing my actual work of course, my brain would melt by 3pm. I’d be completely useless. Taking small breaks to read this site, or surf ModCloth, or look up hairstyles on Pinterest oddly enough keeps me focused on work and helps me to come up with creative solutions to the various problems I encounter all day.

    5. M-C

      I’d probably knit too, but I’m sure that wouldn’t be considered any better :-). Really, stifle your micro-management urges. If you have a problem with an employee being forced to fritter their time playing games on their phone, you need to address the deeper problem, the utter IT incompetence that allows this sort of thing to happen. Don’t harrass the poor guy out the door as well, or soon you’ll be doing the screen staring yourself.

      1. F.

        When I was a receptionist, I would literally have NO work to do after a certain point in our slow season. I had typed every report, updated every form, cleaned out every file; anything you could think of to look productive, I did it. I finally asked my manager if it was okay to knit at the desk, and he said it was fine as long as the phone was answered promptly.

        1. Elizabeth West

          This would happen to me at Exjob, and I got in trouble for going online. Which was stupid, because I got ALL my work done. The IT guy never blocked me from anything because as he said, “I know how boring it can get up there.” So I learned to bring my flash drive with me and work on personal stuff–it looked like I was busy, and I could respond to emails and requests or answer the phone right away. I would pull the drive at the end of the day and nobody was any the wiser. If I was busy, of course, I would do my work instead.

          1. F.

            A word of caution to others out there, some companies take a very dim view of outside flash drives, etc. being used on their systems.

            1. JM in England

              Many companies I’ve worked for have forbidden their use explicitly. However, can see it from their viewpoint in terms of IT security, introducing viruses etc…………….

              1. Elizabeth West

                My old job had no such requirements, but I made sure to scan it before opening anything. My current job makes us install BitLocker on any outside drives, which actually made me happy because if I lose my drive, no one can get in it. I use it to write at lunchtimes. (Disclaimer: the only work thing I put on it is my paycheck and my W-2.)

    6. Not Today Satan

      100% agreed. It also frustrates me how his coworkers’ perceptions are given so much weight. Either they don’t notice/care at all and the LW simply fears they do, or the coworkers themselves clearly don’t have enough work to do if they’re spending time thinking about a colleague’s workload. I couldn’t care less how much social media/games/chatting a coworker does as long as it doesn’t interfere with my work or the productivity of the company.

      1. Ask a Manager Post author

        I just don’t think that’s realistic, though. Plenty of people do form opinions about other people’s work ethic if they see them playing games most of the time when they walk by their desk, and not always unreasonably so.

        It would be irresponsible to just think “eh, they should mind their own business” if their opinions matter. This guy could end up on a layoff list if one of the passersby is the wrong person.

        1. OP Manager

          I think this is where the heart of my question stems from, I know he’s being productive and I can explain it to anyone if they ask, however I do not want it to “look like” he’s not doing work. This is also the only analyst on my team and in the office that does this kind of work, so I need to fight against my own past experience and perceptions of work being a constant clicking and typing type of environment, like it is for other members of my team.

          1. anon for this

            I had this issue at an ExJob, so I see where you’re coming from. I was the employee at a new job and the desk they gave me had my back (and my monitor) facing both the front desk/reception area and the executive hallway. Meaning that my back and my monitor suddenly became the most visible things in the company. After two week of work, that I combined with “mental breaks” as I always do, my boss called me into his office for a talk, and among other things, mentioned visibility and the way my work is being perceived by people outside of our group/company. I went back to my desk and turned my monitor around 180 degrees, so it was facing the back of my cube instead of the hallway. Problem solved. Is there anywhere for your analyst to sit, where everyone and their dog aren’t constantly watching him and passing judgment on his work, that they really know nothing about? To AAM’s point about layoff lists, you probably don’t want to lose the only analyst on your team, who’s being productive, just because the wrong person happened to walk behind his back at the wrong time. Perhaps he can be moved to a different spot?

    7. BRR

      Just referencing looking productive for that short of time, at a conference we were broken up into groups by which database we used. My groups database was web based and would take several seconds to do each task vs the software version. One person said she would just do something else while she waited for the database to complete the action. We all paused and I believe we were all thinking, “what is she doing in these couple of seconds.”

    8. thunderbird

      I spend a fair amount of time on teleconferences, and frankly I spent quite a bit of that time playing mindless games on my phone. I need some visual stimulation or something otherwise I start to drift off mentally. During in person meetings you can look around at the people speaking, there are often presentations or visual materials. I find that this is a challenge for most teleconferencing and my solution has been mindless games, otherwise I can’t focus on the conversation.

  6. AndersonDarling

    My advice-> rearrange the desk so everyone isn’t looking at the analyst’s screen. I’m an analyst and I take many little breaks throughout the day, but I don’t take a lunch break, so my time management is different from most workers. I can’t stare at code for more than an hour without looking away so I read a news article, check my personal email, or read AAM, then I’m back to my work in 5 minutes. But if someone is stalking me, it could look like I do nothing all day. My boss and my co-workers are all in the same boat and understand how it works. Some have their workstations set up so no one can see their screens. I have two screens and angle one away from passersby on which I can do personal things.
    The reality is that everyone looks at their phone, checks their email, or takes a break throughout the day…at least I hope they do.

    1. Hannah K

      I agree! When you’re doing a complicated task, it can be really helpful to disengage and then come back to it a little bit fresher, rather than trying to concentrate for 8 uninterrupted hours. It’s totally normal. I usually grab a drink, shred something, check my email, etc. rather than playing a game – because being seen playing a game at work just looks bad, no matter what. But since this is all about the perception of looking productive, rather than an actual productivity issue, I think moving this employee to a desk where passers-by aren’t tempted to be nosy would be a great solution. I bet the employee would be happy!

        1. Allison

          I found this to be true at my first job as well. I’d be stuck on something in the afternoon, but then have a surge of clarity when I picked it back up in the morning. But then my manager decided it was unprofessional to leave the office with a task uncompleted. It was stupid because it would be 5PM, half an hour before we were allowed to leave, and I had to be careful in choosing a task that would only take half an hour to complete. And if I was 5:30 and I was still stuck on something? Too bad, better ask for help because I wasn’t allowed to leave until it was finished.

          I hated that job.

        2. Myrin

          Absolutely! I work with medieval manuscripts a lot and sometimes I find myself inexplicably stuck on deciphering a certain word (or even just one letter). And it’s happened so often by now that after mulling over it for a long time I will put it away and the next time I open it up the solution practically jumps at me. It’s an interesting phenomenon for sure.

      1. Analyst

        I third this. I’m an analyst too and when I’m building out complex reports, sorting out data, or just waiting the 5 or so minutes for my info to refresh, I’m on my phone or I fart around here for a few minutes because my brain needs the minibreak. Nobody can see my screen and it’s very common at my work for folks to be on their phones so these times don’t make me look like a slacker. If your employee is otherwise stellar, build him in some visual privacy at his workstation. And judge him by the quality and quantity of his work output, not by what he does each minute of each day.

        1. JessaB

          And if necessary have a conversation with the people who walk by who could make a difference as Alison said. Explain before they wonder about what he’s doing, why it’s okay to do so in his case.

    2. themmases

      This is a good idea. I used to work in a small open area and it was so stressful– even if I was really working I didn’t want people coming up right behind me and asking what I was doing! The area was too small to rearrange but my boss totally understood and got my coworker and me screen guards that make the screen appear black to anyone not right in front of it. It relaxed me a lot.

    3. KC

      This is very good advise. It’s not always possible, but im in a similar situation where sometimes im waiting for a short time for something to load. Alternatively, I sometimes have larger swaths of downtime. If I had to “look” productive during those times, that would suck. I try to be as productive as I can, and a large part of why the downtimes exist in the first place is because of my productivity. I definitely stay away from images (moving, animated, etc) and try to stick to text, reading stuff, etc. so it doesn’t stand out.

  7. Anon in MA

    We are supposed to be nice on this site and I’m sorry, but OP you sound like the worst managers I’ve had in my life. Lighten up a little bit.

    1. S.I. Newhouse

      My initial thought wasn’t far off from that, to be honest. But give the letter writer credit for at least asking the question publicly before telling the employee to stop playing on his phone when he (probably) couldn’t realistically do anything else in those 3-5 minutes. If the letter writer were truly awful, he probably would have gone ahead and just done it…

    2. GS

      I wouldn’t be quite so hard on OP: they asked the question and are seeking advice instead of going blindly with their gut to demand the employee stare at the wall, and that’s more than quite a few other managers out there would do.

        1. ackmondual

          I remember when I worked in Kmart as a cashier… they didn’t like us standing around like we’re not doing anything. They’d tell us to straighten the magazine rack, candy/gum shelves, or tidy up your area if you weren’t ringing somebody up. I don’t think we were fooling any observer though. When you’re not busy, you’re just no busy.

          For IT, I would hope they’re more focused on what gets done, as opposed to what perceptions are. That said, even though somebody does good work, you still need to keep up perceptions. “Marketing”… it’s what sells ourselves, from when you’re trying to get the job, to when you’re at the job, and have to show your value to some folks who may not know of it otherwise.

    3. AndersonDarling

      Agreed, but I think the manager’s angle is more about what to do when people ask him why Mr. Analyst isn’t working. And my answer would be, “My analyst does great work and manages his time how he needs to. Now get back to your desk and stare at a blank wall while your computer reboots.”

    4. Anon Accountant

      I think the OP may be concerned as in “what if my bosses noticed that my employee was playing on his phone and how does that reflect on me as a manager”. And worry that it may make the employee appear unprofessional to others and/or give him a poor reputation although he is good at his job.

    5. Ask a Manager Post author

      Whoa! That’s not my take at all. It’s normal to worry about perception over this kind of thing, and the OP wrote in to ask for advice. That’s not bad management at all.

      It’s frustrating to me when people say “I know we’re supposed to be kind to letter-writers here” and then go on to be unkind anyway. Please don’t do that here.

      1. The Optimizer

        I had a similar situation and that was exactly my boss’ concern (he also really, really disliked his boss with good reason). He simply asked me to be discreet about the things I did to occupy my down time so neither of us would have to answer any questions about what I was doing when I couldn’t do anything else.

      2. AMG

        This just reminded me that I had a dream last night that I was blocked and all my comments we permanently moderated from here on. I was really upset about it. Whew!

      3. Observer

        This is not just about the OP worrying about other people’s perceptions. Phrases like “my perception is” and “I can’t help but feel.” are about the OP, not other people. And, to be very honest, it’s utterly unreasonable and makes me wonder about how effective of a manager the OP is.

        1. Almond Milk Latte

          If the manager sees it, other people do too – And they (should) have a better idea of how perceptions run in their office.

          1. Observer

            I disagree. When someone who KNOWS better say he “can’t help feeling”, that destroys any credibility about his knowledge of what others think. It sounds like big time projection, for one thing. For another, it’s so out of touch with reality, so self contradictory, that it’s hard to take it seriously.

    6. INTP

      I’ve had bad managers with similar ideas, but I don’t think they were bad people or intentionally micromanaging. They just came from other industries where it was acknowledged that productivity was roughly equivalent to the amount of time you spend hands-on working, and off-task behavior is for breaks, and didn’t really “get” how that was not realistic or expected for office workers, especially those who did a lot of intellectual/analytical/creative work. At least not until losing a lot of employees over it. One of mine had never been told to her face that she was behaving abnormally for a manager in a professional setting until my exit interview.

      1. OP Manager

        This hits the nail on the head. He is in a unique role and position on my team and he is the only one doing this kind of work, I’m much more used to hands on type of work and employees. This answer and comment thread is helping to open my eyes, thanks for the comments.

        1. Ketchup is a vegetable

          I am glad you are reading and considering and understanding the different nature of people in these types of roles. I am a creative as well, and it helps me very much during the day to take quick breaks on my phone to beat a round or two of one my KING games, check this wesbite, look at a couple snaps on snapchat (omg how old am I?!) etc… it just breaks up things and helps keep my brain from locking up and blanking out.

          As long as your employee is meeting his targets, and producing good work, it shouldn’t be an issue. And perhaps, reorganizing his work station so people are walking by and getting the wrong perception is a good idea.

          Also may be good to ask him if there’s anything that can be done to his machine/software/programs to help his processes. But asking him to look busy for busy sake is a terrible idea… dont demoralize him.

          Best.

        2. One of the Sarahs

          I think you’re awesome for coming here and saying you’ll look for other solutions – please do send an update!

    7. Katie the Fed

      I think it would be a crappy manager who didn’t warn an employee that they were coming across as a slacker, even if the manager knew it wasn’t true. I work in a place where tidy desks are valued. I think it’s stupid but I’d rather be clued in that my naturally messy ways could make me look slacktastic.

      Oh, and your caveat before barging ahead to be rude is ridiculous. If you really can’t resist the urge to be rude, you need to work on your impulse control.

      1. Stranger than fiction

        Ha, I actually had to ask my boss a couple years ago if upper mgmt cares my desk is messy. She said nah, it makes me look busy. I was so relieved I could continue my slovenly habits.

  8. Kassy

    I love this answer. I know that looking like you are being productive is part of the office politics game, but I find it annoying as all get-out. You are the supervisor and are aware of the situation – seems like what’s called for here on the part of others is a healthy dose of MYOB.

    1. INTP

      Yeah, seems like it might be time for the coworkers to learn that different jobs come with different schedules or expectations or arrangements and they need to learn to deal. (Or the other coworkers might be being genuinely micromanaged too, in which case the policies for the entire office might need to be reexamined.)

      1. Ask a Manager Post author

        Except that it might not be just people on the OP’s team. It could be higher-ups or people she barely knows or visitors to the office, and they might be forming impressions that the OP will never get a chance to address. That’s why it’s a reasonable question to raise and not necessarily signs of a micromanager.

      2. Allison

        That’s something a lot of people need to learn. I see people, in my office and just in general, getting frustrated when they’re stressed out and busy, and other people don’t seem as busy or stressed, and to them it’s unfair! they must not be working hard enough! It’s where we often see the bitter, jealous must-be-nices. It must be nice that so-and-so can just sit there while I’m in back to back meetings. It must be nice that Jane can unplug at the end of the day. it must be nice that Jill can leave at 4:30. It must be nice that Sam gets to go on vacation this week.

        1. Temperance

          In defense of this mindset, I will say that that it used to really grind my gears when my same-title coworker would be frittering away the afternoon reading ESPN. Heck yes I was bitter and jealous when I was running around like a squirrel while he just read about sports. I raised the issue to our supervisors, who did nothing … so I took a transfer and let him fail. We had a shared workload, and he inherited it all when I left.

    1. Anna the Accounting Student

      Exactly. If he can’t get at his e-mail on his computer while his work is taking forever to load, there’s probably not a whole lot he can do to look “productive” at his desk!

      OP, it sounds like the problem is either your employee’s computer or the network it’s hooked up to, not your employee himself.

    2. Anon Accountant

      I had a boss that expected for each minute you were at work you had better be doing work tasks or the appearance of work related tasks. I can see my ex-boss expecting an employee to find something to occupy the 3 minutes of down time in some way. Even if it was counting paperclips that would have been preferred to reading an industry news article because that appeared he allowed you to “sit around and read” on company time. Yes the turnover was high.

      1. Rachel

        I’ve had several bosses like that. And if you didn’t have any other work to do, you just weren’t showing enough initiative to find some more.

        1. Sarah

          I had a boss like that in high school. He told me “if you ever don’t have anything to do, just grab a spray bottle and start cleaning things.” Granted it was the kind of odds-and-ends job where that was reasonable, but there are only so many times you can dust off a printer, and part of my job was being near the front door so I could greet the never-ending stream of incoming children and parents and be available to answer their questions, and also keep an eye on the cash box behind the desk. It wasn’t like I could go clean the entire building.

          If you want an employee to be more productive in their free time, give them the means to do so.

    3. Turtle Candle

      Yeah, that’s exactly what I was wondering. I sometimes have to run a build these days that takes in the 3-5 minute range, and I can’t think what I could even do productively in that 3-5 minutes. If I have a straightforward email question sitting in my inbox, I can knock out a quick reply in a couple of minutes, but anything else would take more time than that to switch to and complete. And I don’t have a straightforward question waiting for me hourly, let alone multiple times hourly.

      If the wait time was in the 15-30 minute range, it’d make total sense to get a secondary computer or more RAM or whatever to make sure that he could perform other tasks. But to me those suggestions feel like a red herring, since 3-5 minutes is barely enough time to mentally switch from one task to another (at least for me–I’m a deep focus person), let alone switch, complete a task, and switch back.

    4. INTP

      I guess you could respond to one uncomplicated email, or add something to your time sheet, or clean up your file folders. But none of those would really be worth it to me – you switch gears cognitively, perform maybe 30 seconds of actual work on the new task, and then have to switch gears again. It costs more time in adjusting to the new task than you spend on the task.

      It seems like OP is more bothered by the general principle that people shouldn’t be paid for a minute of off-task work than actual productivity issues, but that’s something that doesn’t really apply to cerebral jobs imo (and probably a lot of other jobs, I just haven’t done them). It’s a given that you aren’t going to be productive at your primary function all day, so you do what you can to maximize what you can do.

  9. CaliCali

    I really hate the corporate business idea that productivity = doing work-related tasks 100 percent of the time at work. I think productivity is more about using your time strategically to still maintain the best outcomes, whether you’re the type that works best nose-to-the-grindstone or in bursts with frequent breaks. As of right now, his equipment and/or software is technically making him UNABLE to work 100 percent of the time, so he builds his breathers into those times where he can’t do anything anyways. That sounds like an efficient and productive use of time to me – working in his mental breathers at points where he can’t do his regular work.

  10. AcidMeFlux

    You could get him a standing treadmill desk attached to a generator, and have him do windsprints on down time so he’s generating electricity to power his computer. I mean, a hamster is a hamster….

  11. Jubilance

    I like the suggestions on working with your IT dept to get your employee a faster computer, or a 2nd one so that he can work on other things while he waits for his spreadsheets. If your company isn’t willing to do that…do you really expect your employee to stare at a blank wall? That’s a great way to lose a good employee.

    Honestly, I think you and the rest of the office have the wrong priorities here. Does he do good work? Is it done on time? Is he otherwise a good employee? If the answer to those questions is “yes”, then why does it matter that he’s on his phone? Do you really expect people to be productive for 8 hours a day, and never have any downtime? Do you ever take a break to look at a blog (or email AAM), make some tea, talk to a coworker about non-work stuff? How is that any different than what he’s doing?

  12. GS

    I once worked somewhere with a team of digital artists in a section of the cube sea, with a ton of research and financial analysts all surrounding them. As digital artists, they often needed to rerender graphics, which can cause the same type of delays that are mentioned in OP’s situation. (It was referred to as “beach balling” or “spinning” because they used Macs, whose version of an hourglass is a spinning multi-colored ball.) One day, a team of financial analysts complained to their boss about the constant noise from the artists (valid) and how much time they waste all day talking and messing around on their phones (not valid). This went up through the chain until an executive sat the artists down and told them of the complaints, forbade phone usage, and demanded they ensure they are working all day (and appear as such to their coworkers and visitors– even though visitors weren’t permitted to this floor of our office space). The art manager apparently backed up the executive, and made no public attempt to explain the computer situation. (This meeting also occurred on the floor, and the artists all tried to explain what was happening to no avail.)

    To their credit, the team did cut down on the noise of their chatter to some extent. But they were pretty annoyed at being told they weren’t doing their jobs. So, for the next six months, the artists would loudly proclaim (read: yell), “SPINNING!” each time their computer processed the 3-10 minute rerenders. This happened something like 50 times per day. I’m fairly sure the analysts regretted saying anything at all.

    All this is to say: the games are probably not appropriate and should be addressed, but there’s a legitimate business reason for him to not be using his computer at that time, and as his manager it may make more sense to communicate that to the others in the office or your own superiors to ensure it’s clear that processing data is his job, and reading his phone while his computer is tied up is not “wasting time” or “not working” and that you’re aware of his work performance and technological constraints.

    1. Roscoe

      So honest question. Why are games not appropriate and need to be addressed? If they went on a 3-5 minute walk, or sat in the break room on the clock, how is that any better?

      1. jhhj

        Games just look worse than checking your phone for a minute. It’s not any deeper than that — it’s a convention.

        1. Roscoe

          But just because its convention, doesn’t make it logical. This seems like an illogical thing to care about when they literally can’t be doing work.

          1. jhhj

            But though the employee knows they can’t be working and the manager knows it, everyone else doesn’t. I’m not saying it’s logical to separate games from non-games, but it’s something that is pretty common in offices.

          2. Ask a Manager Post author

            The manager isn’t in a position to change convention or human nature; it’s reasonable for her to care about the perception of people who pass by the employee and regularly see him playing games a good portion of the day.

            1. Shell

              I’m with Alison on this one. For every person who complains about Analyst’s gaming habits there are probably two more who raise eyebrows but don’t say anything. Short of an all-staff memo, there isn’t a foolproof way to make sure everyone knows that Analyst is waiting for his computer, not slacking endlessly on the clock. (Word of mouth always spreads like wildfire when it’s something you don’t want spread, and utterly deficient when you do want to spread it, but I digress.) And even if OP argues or explains to everyone they meet, it only takes one grumpy executive/powers that be for it to get messy. It’s not right, but there it is.

              I think asking the employee to read the news or something on his phone is a reasonable middle ground. They can have their idle time, but not with something as obviously distracting and non-work as games.

            2. Anna

              But is it really a good portion of the day? Taking in to account that it might be 3-5 minutes an hour, every hour, the other question the OP might ask (if it’s really all about perception) is, why are the other employees up out of their seats so often at the exact right time to “catch” this employee?

              1. jhhj

                And they’re not going to notice when employee is working, because it won’t ping the radar — they’ll just see when he appears to be wasting time and remember those times adding up (maybe 10-15 minutes total every hour, based on the question).

            3. Jetta

              Is what was described by the OP really a good portion of the day? Face time as a work metric should have died when information workers became predominant in the US workforce. Why can’t the manager simply explain that he MUST wait, several times an hour, for the processing to finish before he can continue, and there is nothing to see there, no problem. It’s not the workers fault that the downtime is in such little discrete amounts that doing anything meaningful during that time is not practical. If this pettiness was brought to me, I would start looking because it s a job structure problem, not an employee problem. Situations like this cause employees to question the real usefulness of some managers who are not helping anything get done while workers must die a death by a thousand paper cuts.

        2. ExceptionToTheRule

          My therapist once advised me to find a simple repetitive game to play for brief periods when I needed to refocus my brain. It doesn’t just work for anxiety spirals, it’s a quick & easy way to clear my head and actually be more productive than if I didn’t take that micro-break.

        3. Ketchup is a vegetable

          For a high school student in school maybe. Not for an adult who knows how to manage his workload. It’s a ridiculous rule and thought process carried over from people who can’t leave some of those things behind when they grow up.

      2. Sally-O

        Well, games are usually 100% not-work-related, whereas reading the news or industry blogs usually has *some* relevance to most fields of work.

      3. One of the Sarahs

        I was also wondering if games are something they can do without going online and using their data allocation? I’d be pretty annoyed if I had to use my data because “it looked bad” that I was playing games, but checking email is ok.

    2. Lizabeth

      Nice that the art manager didn’t back them up; I wonder how many of the digital artists found new jobs within the year?

      1. Not the Droid You Are Looking For

        I swear half my job as a creative director is saying, “no my employees aren’t goofing off” or “that may look like goofing off, but it’s part of the creative process.”

          1. Allison

            I’ll never forget being in 5th grade, and everyone in class was working on some writing assignment. I’d stopped to think about what I was gonna write, but I’d made the mistake of looking up at something while thinking, and my teacher went “Aaaallisooon . . .” and I snapped back “I’m thinking!” It was so irritating to get a hard time just because I’d taken a second to think instead of write, all because I was looking at something other than the paper.

            I swear, people probably think I’m working when I’m commenting here, all because I’m typing and looking all focused and stuff.

            1. Sarah

              This. In high school I’d scribble furiously in a 3-ring notebook all day, glancing up occasionally to stare at the white board for a few seconds before going back to scribbling. I’m sure it looked like I was SO focused on the lesson and taking diligent notes, but actually I was writing goofy stories.

          2. Not So NewReader

            My father was a designer, he designed electrical type things that turned into blueprints and later on turned into patents. This was back in the day of slide rulers and no computers. He said that he spent half the day leaned back in his chair with his arms crossed and staring at the ceiling. He found it remarkable that his bosses never said anything about slacking. That was in the 60s. This “look busy” thing has been going on throughout the ages.

        1. Koko

          Yes!

          The other big one that I think is hard for others to get is how critically important it is not to stop writing once you’re in the zone. If you don’t bang out the ideas as they come, an hour or even five minutes later they might well be gone. I will stay late to work on a piece that isn’t due for days because I’m flowing and I’d rather stay 20 minutes late now than spend an hour trying to get back into flow state tomorrow.

    3. michelenyc

      The person I sit next to at my office also has large spreadsheets that take forever to update so he will play Candy Crush while he waits. TBH I don’t really care. What else is he going to do while he waits? He doesn’t get a lot of phone calls and there is only so much desk organizing you can do. People just need to mind their business and focus on their on job.

    4. Liane

      Another reason to be glad I only do 3d art as a hobby. No one in the house will say anything about whatever nonsense I surf to while rendering.

  13. Allison

    I can see why he would want to occupy himself while the spreadsheet does its thing, but I can also see how the perception could be an issue. Some solutions:

    – get him a dual monitor and have him load a news article he can read while he’s waiting

    – put him in a more private spot so people just don’t see what he’s up to every second of the day

    – let him read stuff on his phone or browse social media, but prohibit games

    – depending on the size of the office, suggest he sometimes use those minutes to get up and walk around for a bit, or eat a snack.

    – if people seem to be complaining that he’s goofing off, explain why he’s on his phone, and add that he’s doing as much as he can. ask these people if they’re getting what they need from him in a timely manner, to see if they worry his supposed goofing off is impacting them somehow or if they just think it’s unfair that he gets these 3-5 minute “breaks” and they don’t.

  14. Roscoe

    This seems like the textbook definition of micromanaging. You know that he can’t be doing anything else work related, but you want to tell him he can’t look at his phone? Give me a break. Even if he is playing games, why do you care. If other people are making comments, why don’t you be a supportive manager and explain why his is on his phone like that? If you try to relegate this, you may as well start posting for a new employee now, and then expect lots of turnover.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      Often the problem is that people aren’t making comments but are forming negative conclusions, so there’s no an easy opportunity to address it or even to know who’s getting that impression. When those people are higher-ups or visitors to the office, it can be a real issue. That doesn’t mean there’s not a way to address it, but it’s a legitimate concern.

  15. neverjaunty

    LW, if I’m reading this correctly, what you’re saying is that it bothers you when your employee is using 3-5 minutes of enforced downtime to do something that isn’t ‘work’. And it’s not that your employee is goofing off – he really can’t do anything while his computer loads.

    AAM is entirely correct; the problem here is your own reaction, which is irrational and is putting your employee in a no-win situation. Your reasonable options are 1) get the computer situation fixed so there’s no downtime, or 2) chill out about your employee reading a book or making a phone call when it’s not possible for him to be doing work. Your unreasonable options are to be annoyed that he isn’t spending those 5 minutes staring at a blank screen, or busily pretending to do work for the optics.

    If there are other issues with this employee (attitude, attendance, whatever) then focus on those, and don’t use “He reads a BOOK! On the CLOCK!” as a proxy.

    PS: you’re probably going to get some pretty harsh comments, because as you know if you’ve read the site much, a lot of people have worked for managers with similar, irrational attitudes about ‘butts in seats’ or ‘look busy’. I urge you to listen to AAM’s advice and not turtle because of that.

    1. Allison

      A part of my does sympathize with managers in these situations, particularly managers who are under scrutiny by higher ups or managers or other departments who are concerned about the team’s productivity. If one person looks like they’re goofing off, it can reflect badly on the manager. Managers who obsess over their employees being in the office, butts-in-seats, heads-down, steam coming out of their ears at all times and churning out killer metrics often have upper management breathing down their necks.

      1. neverjaunty

        That I understand, but LW was pretty clear that it’s not just other people making remarks, it’s her own perception and her own discomfort at play here.

    2. OP Manager

      This sums it up, there’s the technical things I should and will look into to see if there is any other productivity to be found through technology, however I’m realizing through this thread that I need to be looking inside a bit more. I’m having a gut reaction to seeing his head down in his phone on what to me is an often basis, however I’m just not used to managing someone with this type of work yet and need to work on my own expectations and perceptions. Thanks for the comment.

    3. One of the Sarahs

      I was wondering if it’s something about the cultural connotations of a phone? In one of my old jobs, the system took an age to warm up, so most people’s routine was come in, turn on computer, go and get tea, see it’s not started yet, read the free paper, but I could imagine some of the older staff looking askance at someone on a phone, rather than doing the crossword.

  16. Last Chip in the Box

    I am with all those who think the other employees should mind their own business. I mean, how is everyone else managing to notice what the analyst is doing all day if they are 100% focused on their own work?

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      I just really don’t think it’s that easy. In a large company, people may not have the opportunity to form much of an impression about this guy other than what they see when they pass him. It’s natural to form impressions when every time you pass someone, they’re playing Temple Run or whatever.

      1. Riri

        What are the chances that it’s every time, though? Surely it would be pretty unlucky to have multiple people just happening to always and only pass him during these mini-breaks!

          1. Elizabeth West

            Then they might need to look at another way to do these spreadsheets. If they’re sucking up that much time loading, it’s not really the employee’s fault. Maybe upgrade the equipment or something? I can’t even imagine working with something that slow.

      2. anxietygirl

        So honest question: how do things ever change in the workplace? Everybody on this forum seems to know what the right answer is (let this person do his job and manage his own time)… but if you can never change people’s perceptions or push back and change the culture… it all just seems futile and like nothing will ever change and crazy employees and coworkers and higher ups will forever run the workforce.

        Sorry– no snark and I am probably dealing with post xmas blues… I totally get what you are saying.. you need to deal with people’s impressions but, as a manager, I would love to just say ONCE to the nosey peer or coworker who doesn’t understand the situation “MYOB!”.

        1. Kimberlee, Esq

          I think that you can change these sorts of things in the workplace (and many of those things are changing now). Way more people can have visible tattoos or colorful hair today at work than could 20 years ago. Dress codes are relaxing. Workplaces are shifting to being results-oriented rather than butt-in-chair oriented.

          But it does require people, specifically managers and executives, that are willing to take a harder road. Like, you can firmly believe that a person doesn’t have to be wearing a suit to be productive, but if you’re the first Big 4 accounting firm with no dress code, you have to live with/deal with people walking in and being like “Ugh, they look like slobs, how am I supposed to trust them with my money?” You can talk to a lot of people about that, and address concerns, but there will usually be people who say nothing, and never call you back and you never know why, just as there will be people who walk in and think “How refreshing! Finally, a company that understands that clothes have nothing to do with success” but they got a better price from your competition so you never hear from them again.

          Ultimately, I think the future favors the bold. In this case, being bold means being a manager that is laser-focused on results, that fosters communications and gets amazing things done, and who defends their team and their policies to higher-ups when necessary. Sometimes, being that manager is the way to change the culture. Sometimes, being that manager just gets people pissed off and you get fired or pushed out. I don’t think these decisions should be made based on the merit of “this is how it’s always been done” because that’s stupid, but it’s also stupid to not take into account the risks of the paths you choose.

          Now that I’ve written a treatise on this, my conclusion is that the manager should be cool with the employee doing whatever during that downtime, including games, unless it becomes an actual problem, but like I said, I think the future favors the bold.

        2. Not So NewReader

          Just my opinion, but changes in the work place happen for many different reasons.

          Society changes. The general thinking of the people moves toward something else. We see a lot of organic products in stores. We did not have that twenty years ago. What society values is changing.
          I remember thirty years ago I was told I could not learn about plants. Women have something missing from their brains so they could not learn about plants. Even women told me this. We know better than to say these things now. Society has changed.

          We actually do learn, it feels like things stay the same forever. But they don’t, we do learn and evolve. What we did not pay attention to years ago, we now realize we must start paying attention. Smoking in the work place is a big change I have seen in my life time. When I first started working it was normal for people to smoke while working. We learned and we evolved.

          Managers and execs use their position to change their square foot of planet earth. Sometimes it starts a ripple. Other companies follow suit.
          Personally, I have had opportunities to start change simply by giving my boss the words/phrasing to explain why change is necessary. Bosses have so many balls in the air that sometimes they just cannot hone in on one issue. Subordinates have the opportunity to help their boss verbalize what is wrong and why it needs to change. We had unsafe situation X going. It’s too identifying to mention here, but if I mentioned it most people would say “Wait. That has a long history of being known as unsafe.” I gave my boss the wording that she needed to kick TPTB into action. Change happened as unsafe situation stopped. I had another issue come up where Coworker was not adequately supported in doing his job. I mentioned that he should have A and B. Lacking these items his job was ten times harder than need be and I gave reasons 1 through 7. It was not long, Coworker was given A and B to use on the job. Even front line people can bring about changes.

          Some changes in work places happen because of tragedy that makes nationwide headlines. Other changes happen because of new laws, new funding or funding drying up. I am sure I missed another dozen examples of how change happens in work places. I stayed at one job for over a decade. In that time my job evolved into something that was no where near what I had started at, there was that many changes . The longer you stay in a field or stay with one employer the easier it is to see the changes unfold.

      3. Rachael

        This is true. I worked in an operations environment at a bank and the higher ups were always commenting if they walked by and saw someone “slacking off”. To them “if there was time to lean, there was time to clean”. It didn’t matter that I clocked out and was on lunch (and paying a bill via billpay real quick).

        My manager go the flack of it and, even though she knew that we weren’t slackers, she had to make a “no lunch at our desks” policy because people had an expectation of what our productivity had to be. If they walked by and had a negative impression everyone heard about it – and the rep in question found their reputation as a hard workder down the drain. Not fair, but reality.

      4. ThatGirl

        At my job, we often have big data loads that can take 5, 10, 15 minutes, and since we have to check it after it loads it’s not feasible to do much more than check work email or something during the load. This has definitely given some people outside our dept the idea that we’re not busy enough and our managers basically said be more discreet about doing non work things.

      5. Jetta

        I have been well organized all my life. Even in this computer age, when I worked in the office a lot (I work mostly at home now, thank goodness), passers by would question if I was working because my workstation was so neat. How silly. I could put my hand in any document asked for, no matter how old. I am highly efficient, never missing a deadline. Plus, the research, analytically focused work, and resultant report writing, require a lot of mental planning and processing which my neat environment facilitated FOR ME.. It made the messy folks feel better to snark on me but my manager never worried when I was off because he knew where things were that I was working on. Sometimes the erroneous perceptions of people walking by need to be corrected.

  17. Mike C.

    I really, really disagree with the whole “playing a game means you’re not working” thing. Getting projects done, delivering results on time and on spec, those are the true measures of whether someone is working or not. I’ve been approached by higher ups plenty of times with my phone in my hand and it’s never stopped me from addressing their requests or delivering results on time. If you were to tell me to put my phone away because it “looked bad”, you would be finding a new employee – I’m certainly not going to sit there and stare at a screen and I’m certainly not going to be happy about my history of hard work being ignored because someone thinks having a phone in my hand “makes me look lazy” or whatever. This is business – results matter.

    Also, if we’re talking huge spreadsheets that take minutes to open, I think it might be time to think about databases.

    1. Roscoe

      Thats my thing. I don’t know why if I’m reading an article on ESPN on my phone that its fine for “optics”, but if I’m playing Candy Crush than I’m wasting time.

      1. Elsajeni

        Yeah, that’s puzzling to me, too. Not least because I feel like, if passing coworkers are looking closely enough at my phone to tell the difference, they are the ones behaving weirdly! (Assuming the OP’s employee is doing common-courtesy stuff like turning the sound off on his phone games, not watching noisy Youtube videos, etc.)

    2. Bostonian

      I was also wondering about the database thing. I work with a lot of big data sets and spreadsheets, and it’s exceedingly rare that I do anything to a spreadsheet that takes that long to process. SQL queries running and code compiling and graphics rendering are all more typical reasons for these kinds of mini-breaks. But if you have that much data in a spreadsheet and you’re regularly doing the kinds of things that take that long to process, either you’re working on a really clunky machine or you should be using a different technology, typically either a database or a statistics package.

      There are plenty of organizations where getting the appropriate software would be a bureaucratic nightmare, and it doesn’t really answer the question that OP asked. But staring at Excel processing like that many times a day would drive me up the wall in a way that waiting for a SQL query to return results doesn’t because it would seem so inefficient.

      1. AndersonDarling

        I used to do data dumps from accounting software that took hours to run. It was supposed to dump the data in a spreadsheet, but if you were in the middle of typing an email when the query finished, it would dump the data in your email with no warning.
        I’m guessing this is the set up the OP is working with, dumping data from an outdated system into a spreadsheet for analysis.

      2. Sarah

        I used to have the exact problem described by this letter in Excel until I figured out that the formulas I was copying and pasting into a new spreadsheet every month were making calls back to the second tab on the *original* workbook from which they were copied, not the identical second tab on *this* workbook. So I was basically accessing a remote network 90,000 times in a row, and it locked my computer up. Excel was *not* good at that. If I’d actually needed to do that, instead of just doing it because I was dumb and forgot to paste formulas, Excel would not have been the right tool for the job. I suspect it’s probably a similar problem here… Excel just isn’t cut out to handle gracefully whatever it is they want it to do.

    3. LQ

      I had an interesting thing happen a while ago with “games” vs “work”. I had been playing some e-learning games because a huge part of what I do is e-learning design and development and I was trying to come up with something fun, engaging, and educational. My director stopped by and said he knew what I was doing and wanted me to go home and do it for the rest of the day because it was really important, and because he’d had a couple people complain to him and one of them was a union person. It was easier to send me home and let me work on it there (which I got to do in house clothes and on my good computer! so no complaints!) than to try to explain that games aren’t always bad.

      Now we regularly have e-learnings that have “game”ier kinds of components and no more complaints about me playing games at work, or anyone else that I know of. Culture is slow to change, but it can change, which is kind of hopeful.

  18. The IT Manager

    I do disagree with one part of Alison’s answer. I do think you could reasonably ask him not to play games while he waits because games will read pretty blatantly as “NOT WORKING AND DON’T CARE WHO KNOWS IT!” to people who don’t know the situation (especially visitors to your office, higher-ups, etc.), whereas being on his phone or reading could feasibly be work-related or a quick break.

    People’s perspectives are shaped by their environment, but if I see someone sitting on front of their computer on their cell phone, I am going to assume that they are not working. My experience is that the cell phone is personal so they’re screwing around or dealing with something personal i.e. not working.

    This is a appearance problem. The LW doesn’t think he can work harder with his current set up, but she doesn’t like the optics. I understand her concern while I sympathize with the employee too. I’m just saying that if LW doesn’t want it appear “NOT WORKING AND DON’T CARE WHO KNOWS IT!”, the LW may have to restrict the employees cell phone use.

    Best case solution of course is to figure out a way for him to keep working while things load by getting a better computer or a different computer or give him some other work thing he can do without a computer,

    1. Roscoe

      Well, that is possible, but then it should probably be a ban an ALL cell phone use in the office. Most places don’t want to do that, so I don’t think it is a good idea because manager doesn’t want to stand up for her employee.

    2. Juli G.

      And see, at my company, being on a phone means that you’re probably texting someone which is our number one way of communicating (I swear this is a well-established company and not one ran by 15 year olds). I wouldn’t think twice.

      1. KR

        LOL I don’t think my boss would even pick up if I called. He told me when I first started working here that he doesn’t like using the phone and texts me or emails me for anything work related. Works for me- I’m so awkward on the phone anyway.

      2. Kyrielle

        In my company, it may well mean you’re handling company email.

        Or playing Candy Crush. Unless I can see your phone, I don’t know. And I don’t really care.

    3. Elizabeth West

      My experience is that the cell phone is personal so they’re screwing around or dealing with something personal i.e. not working.

      I don’t assume that, because people here have work phones and personal phones. But YMMV.

    4. Marcela

      Well, you see, if you see me sitting in front of my 3 screen computer using my phone, you better believe I am working because that’s exactly what I am doing: testing tgat the website I am making looks and works properly in small devices. That’s exactly what my boss told one of my nosy coworkers, who thought that I was doing code (we truly wondered afterwards what he thinks websites are), therefore there was no need to have my phone and tablet in use. People’s perceptions are shaped by our environments, yes, but when we find a perception as obviously wrong as “phone = laziness”, we should fight it.

    5. Sarah

      I think it would be great if the office culture could change so that wasn’t a problem for the employee who has to wait anymore, but yeah, if the sound is turned off (which I’m sure it is) I bet you can’t even tell that he’s playing games unless he’s doing something that requires a lot of really frantic tapping, like Flappy Bird. Most likely his coworkers can’t tell the difference between Looking at Phone – Game and Looking at Phone – Article, let alone Looking at Phone – Industry-Related Article. From more than 2 feet away it’s all just Looking at Phone.

  19. Juli G.

    I’ve told this story before but it’s worth repeating. We had a manager that was making a business case for the number of people we needed on our team (analyst type work). She scheduled out to 40 hours a week per person.

    The director sent her back and said, “You can’t account for 40 hours. People need time to check CNN, ESPN, have a 10 minute friendly conversation with someone in the building, get a snack, or just stop staring at a computer screen.”

    That he understood that we weren’t robots built for maximum productivity was awesome and incredibly motivating!

    1. CheeryO

      That’s amazing. I have experience with a few companies that require 40-44 hours of productive, billable work each week, at least from junior employees (the environmental consulting field). They all have insane turnover – surprise, surprise!

      1. hermit crab

        Yep, that’s us. But on most projects it’s understood that people will go take a walk or make tea or check the headlines or whatever while letting something turn over in their mind, and that’s OK. Plus, we bill in half-hour increments so it’s not like the proverbial law firm where you can’t bill the 7.5 minutes you spent in the bathroom.

  20. Esperanza

    I’m just like your employee. Our data system often locks up my computer for a few minutes, and I pass the time by looking at my phone. I have ADD and lack of stimulation drives me crazy — I can’t imagine just staring at the monitor and waiting. If I get an e-mail I will answer it on my iPhone, but often I am just reading random websites to deal with the wait.

    If anyone told me to stop looking at my phone while my computer grinds away, I would be irritated and offended. Our slow data system drives me crazy. I hate that I can’t work with large datasets without it freezing over and over and over, all day. Nobody wants it to finish loading more than I do! When I look at my phone, I’m coping with my own frustration — not slacking off.

    I mean, what else is he supposed to do? If you want him to sit there and stare just to keep up the appearance of constant productivity, you’re just going to make him miserable with no actual increase in productivity.

  21. The Optimizer

    I’m a data analyst as well and have run programs in previous jobs that would take up to an hour to run. Even though my machine was at maximum RAM, if I did more than read email while the programs were running, it was likely to crash and have to be restarted. I also had be present while the program ran in case any errors came up that needed to be addressed.

    My boss, who was the worlds worst micromanager, understood the process (he wrote the program, after all) and knew why I was on my phone, reading or doing a crossword puzzle. He preferred that to me socializing and just asked me to be discreet about it so he didn’t have to answer questions from his boss or others about why I was “always goofing off.”

    I would also take this time to organize my desk or emails, write notes, make calls or send basic emails whenever possible.

    While asking him to stare at a blank screen is a bit much, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask him to find a few things he can do that don’t involve using his machine and being discreet when he can’t. Just frame it by telling him it’s in both of your best interests that others don’t think he’s not working when he is.

    1. Not So NewReader

      This!
      I agree that people do make judgement calls based on what they see at a given moment. Basically as a supervisor, I felt it just came with the job. OP, I think a helpful thing to do is to plan out what you will say when someone points out the down times to you. I think once you know what you will say when confronted, you will look at this a little differently. For example, I have said things such as “The machine has x capacity. It will take y time to run its current process. Yes, we are paying him to sit there and wait. Meanwhile if something goes wrong with the process he is there to catch it. We need his specialized knowledge and/or watchful eye to get through any problems that occur.” I had my explanation in place so I would not be caught unprepared for a comment about a slacking subordinate.

      Secondly, when I supervised I felt it was on me to show the people how to cover their bases. I did give them a couple of things never to do- such as standing around talking for any length of time. (Asking a question and getting an answer was okay, but no long conversations.) In another example, there were times when they had to wait for me. The wait could be 20 minutes or longer. I clearly told them to tell the bosses that I said they had to wait for me. Since this did not happen often it was never a big issue. But I told them what to say if someone said something. There were other little things I told my group to cover themselves. Show your employee how to cover his basis. It could be as easy as turning his chair so no one sees he has a video game on the screen of his phone, as someone mentioned above. I was able to say, “As far as me, personally, I don’t care that you do x. However some folks will complain. In order to prevent these complaints, please do y.” To me this came under the umbrella of showing the group what to do in order to keep their jobs.

      In short: Have your explanation well prepared in advance. And support your people by letting them know how to avoid being targets of critics.

      These two things went well for me. Well enough, that the crew even helped each other avoid being targets of criticism. In the end, I never did have much problem with complaints from people outside my department nor my own bosses. Everyone was on the same page.

    2. Jetta

      There is a big difference between up to an hour and three to five minutes of intermittent downtime. Let this analyst work at home, problem solved!

  22. guess what excel is doing right now

    Sure, you *can* get em another computer and enforce multitasking, but the problem there isn’t computers, it’s brainspace. While excel is working or a query is running, checking my email or looking at AAM ;) takes very little brainspace; it’s not distracting. So when the program’s done, boom, I’m back in business.

    Switching to a different project? I’m going to lose the thread of task A and not get it back for a while.

    *insert xkcd code compiling comic*

    1. Esperanza

      Yeah, that’s another thing. Even if the manager got him a second computer, these waits often aren’t enough time to get into another task. Most tasks can’t just be worked on in 3 minute increments — at least, not in my world. They require sustained thought and effort. Attempting to fill short waits with these other projects would be bad for my productivity (because it will delay task 1, when the system finally loads but I don’t want to switch back until I’ve finished my thought on task 2) — plus it would drive me up the freaking wall.

      Every so often I have a task that can be completed while my computer churns, and then immediately dropped, like organizing my papers. But it’s pretty rare. I need to keep my brain on the data task even if it involves waiting.

    2. Bostonian

      This. I work with big data sets on a server and my queries often take 1-5 minutes to run. I can either just goof off and wait for it to finish, or I can try to alternate back and forth between two tasks. Alternating is a good way for me to make mistakes, get distracted by task B and fail to get back to task A for much longer than I meant to, and end up feeling totally fried at the end of the day. I’ve learned the hard way that multi-tasking only works with certain kinds of tasks, and I don’t always have that kind of task that needs doing.

  23. F.

    Studies have shown that taking mental breaks during the workday actually increases productivity. The brain isn’t meant to be going full-tilt thinking eight (or more) hours a day.

  24. videogame Princess

    What is he using for spreadsheets? If it takes that long, it might make sense to switch to Microsoft SQL server or Postgresql, or another DBMS that is suited for handling large amounts of tabular data. Then you can host it on a larger server. Sounds like you are running into a data problem rather than an employee problem.

    1. Underemployed Erin

      Sometimes these spreadsheets do have a database on the back end and use ODBC to load the data into Excel. It could be slow due to the amount of data or internet connectivity or a number of things like complex calculations in the spreadsheets.

  25. Student

    Either your employee needs a better computer, or your employee needs a better tool to do his job.

    Tell him to start using his down time to figure out which it is and come up with a proposal for moving forward with greater productivity.

    Seriously. We simulate nuclear reactors and exploding stars with less downtime issues. Maybe Excel (just making a guess here…) is not the right tool for this specific job. You might need to ask other people (possibly outside your company, if it is a small one – try web forums) how to do his job correctly if he won’t look for a way to be more productive.

    Any time someone is spending significant amounts of time waiting for something to “load”, then something is very wrong from a technical standpoint.

    1. anxietygirl

      I don’t think it’s that simple as to “find out what you need and tell us.” I would bet $1,000,000 the employee has told the manager what they need. I would be the manager knows what the need. Companies don’t like to spend money on this stuff… I should know; I work for a company that doesn’t spend money on IT.

    2. Observer

      Either your employee needs a better computer, or your employee needs a better tool to do his job.

      This is almost certainly true.

      Tell him to start using his down time to figure out which it is and come up with a proposal for moving forward with greater productivity.

      In 3-5 minute increments? Not likely.

    3. OP Manager

      I think this is a great idea and will try something along these lines. I think the hardware is probably at a good level, however there may be better tools and I’d like him to investigate and let me know, something he has not done yet, and something I do not know myself as I am not as technically savvy as he is.

      1. Observer

        Please don’t assume that the hardware is at a good level. I’m serious – I have a “top of the line” computer, by many accounts, but it would totally bog down on really large excel spreadsheets.

        Do yourself a favor and check it out. I’d be willing to bet that your guy could tell you what, if anything, could be done from the hardware end. I suggest this, because it’s quite possible that it would help even if he does find a better tool, which is also an excellent thing to look into.

      2. AMG

        Check out Monarch software–that’s how I’ve gotten around data crashes in Excel in the past. Worked pretty well and though I’m only somewhat technical, I found it to be user-friendly.

  26. Rachel

    I’m in a similar situation to the employee. Our system is entirely virtual and I’ve been told that it can’t be sped up without adding more servers at extremely high cost. My work is probably 60% spreadsheets and 40% in-house software. I need at least 3 very large, shared spreadsheets open at one time, and if I do much while a task is processing, my system is likely to crash. The in-house software is even worse, leaving me chunks of 3-5 minutes up to an hour where I can use my machine only very minimally. I’m a highly productive worker and have several little tricks to minimize the amount of time I’m unable to do anything, but sometimes it’s unavoidable. And at those times, I browse the web on my phone. I don’t feel comfortable playing games during that time, though, just because I feel that it looks unprofessional. And sometimes I take a couple minutes to read AAM or another blog because I need a refresher during a difficult task. Thankfully management understands that we’re people, not drones, and as long as I’m getting my job done it’s not a problem.

    1. Dan

      Rachael –

      I’m of the opinion (see below, ha!) that when your Excel projects are that messy and slow, it’s time to dump Excel. One might say the in-house software isn’t doing much better, but that’s probably because it’s written by people who don’t use it. Good software takes time to write, and pretty much always takes multiple versions/rewrites.

      FWIW, I can open a massive CSV file in Excel, and throw in a bunch of formulas that take forvever to update. I can write a program in Python or Java that does the same calculations, and exexutes in a mere fraction of time — and doesn’t cause stability issues with my system.

      If you want to make the inhouse developers laugh, bring them a box of doughnuts and ask them to remove the sleep commands from the threads that are causing delays. (There’s rumours that some software has different pricing levels, and that more money gets you a faster product. But the only thing that happens is that they remove code whose sole purpose is to chew up CPU cycles and waste time.)

      1. Shell

        O.o My mind is boggled.

        I legitimately thought higher-tiered software did execute faster because it had better algorithms or something (I don’t know any code or programming, so this is as articulate as I can be about the subject).

        I guess I wasn’t wrong, but I didn’t think that lower-tiered stuff intentionally had messy code. I guess I don’t precisely know what I was assuming about the better stuff; special code that takes advantage of enterprise-level hardware? I dunno…

      2. Rachel

        Dan, I completely agree with what you’re saying, and frankly, it’s the biggest source of frustration with my job. We’re always being told that we can’t just keep hiring more people, we need to find new efficiencies, but the truth is that we just need better software. A few years back we dumped a bunch of money into R&D for a software that would eliminate the need for Excel entirely, but we had a change of management and the project was scrapped.

  27. LQ

    I agree with a lot of the things about a second computer. I have this often happen (and I really need to go sit down with my boss and ask for a better computer, mine is seriously hindering my productivity) and I have a second monitor up with a post from here or an article from a professional association. Sometimes I’ll end up on my phone because I’ll have to reboot entirely. If I’m having a heavy processing day I’ll keep a second computer, a laptop open next to me and respond to emails or read articles or do tiny things in those processing times.

    I’d also say if this frustrates him (I know my delays frustrate me) then absolutely work hard to get this fixed in whatever way works. But if it doesn’t and he’s producing as much as you expect (for me I’m already producing more than is expected so it doesn’t bother my boss) then let it go, offer tools to help him if he wants it, but don’t micromanage the minutes.

  28. Dan

    A couple of others have briefly chimed in on this, but I’m going to plus one this in my own way…

    I’m a software developer and data analyst for a living. The first thing I’m going to tell the OP is that they very much do have a management problem on their hands — they’re using the wrong software. It doesn’t matter if “this is the way it’s always been done.” They’ve reached the breaking point where home-grown excel spreadsheets are WASTING TIME. This happens with many projects on many platforms — they start small as proof of concept and it works. So people keep adding to it. But what works as a small project doesn’t work as a large project. Once you know what the thing is supposed to do, sometimes you have to tear it down and start all over, find a COTS solution that meets your spec, or farm out the development of a new system. Sometimes, one of those solutions can’t be avoided.

    The reality is, if you’re writing excel spreadsheets that take that long to update, one of three things is wrong: 1) You need more hardware, 2) You need to optimize your spreadsheets, or 3) You need to ditch excel. TBH, I wouldn’t worry about 1) or 2), they’re a wild goose chase. I work with massive amounts of data, and the only thing I use Excel for is to look at some CSV files and make some basic charts. My admin has better Excel skills than me.

    The other thing you should know about Excel is that sceen (cell) writing is extremely SLOW. The problem just becomes more obvious when you work with crap tons of data. You can test that out by writing macros that populate cell data vs ones that do manipulation in memory.

    Again, OP, your management problem is that you’re using the wrong the software. Forget the “this is the way it’s always been done” excuse and talk some $. You have a guy who is wasting a minimum of 3 minutes multiple times per hour. This sounds like it could be as much as a half hour per hour, but let’s be conservate and say that he’s wasting 15 minutes per hour looking at his screen. That’s two hours per day. If you look at it as being 25% of his work life, do you realize he’s wasting 3 months of the year staring at his screen? How much value could he add to the company if he spent that three months working on another project?

    P.S. I have a boss who is a big Tableau freak. She likes Tableau for everything. Except that for my work, Tableau is just painfulling slow and I have the same problem that your employee does when I get a Tableau task for my work. I push back on her, and sometimes it falls on deaf ears. I have gone to her boss just to let him know that if she complains that I’m being pig headed about using Tableau, it’s becuase I’m going to sit and stare at the screen for multiple hours per day, and that I have faster ways of accomplishing the task. The ONLY action item I want him to take is to be aware that there’s a very legitamate other side of the story if he gets complaints that I’m being difficult about that. FWIW, he’s agreed with me that if I’m wasting that much time, it’s worth a conversation about other ways to tackle the problem ;) And yes, I’ve asked my direct superiors to talk to the engineers about the problems that they have, and ask us for solutions. I prefer not having solutions rammed down my throat, because they may not be the best ones. After all, the company hires us because we bring skills to the table. Most of us are mid career professionals, not entry level.

    1. Observer

      Tell him to start using his down time to figure out which it is and come up with a proposal for moving forward with greater productivity.

      While I agree with most of your post, I disagree with this. More / better hardware can make a HUGE difference. As others have said LOTS of RAM and an SSD can often help even with software that doesn’t really take much advantage of other hardware upgrades.

      1. Windchime

        Yep and a better computer is definitely chapter than buying Tableau! We have a BI department of over 10 people and we still don’t have Tableau because of the expense.

  29. Callie30

    Hi OP – I recall from a few studies this past year that a few minutes of games or other breaks can actually increase overall productivity.

    And if the employee is waiting regardless and there isn’t something else to fill his time – and if he is fulfilling his work requirement, then I don’t see the issue, beyond perception.

    Beyond that, I also agree with a few of the above that if you want to address the downtime issue, perhaps a software improvement/upgrade is in order!

  30. Not Today Satan

    I find it fascinating that the vast majority of people here agree that short breaks are necessary/not harmful, yet so many companies/managers still insist that people only use computers “for work purposes,” don’t use their personal phones on the clock, etc.

    As for me, I have a very intense workload and spend the majority of my day with clients. No matter how busy I am, I will take a few minutes to check social media, the news, my email, etc. I literally *need* that time to “check out” in order to keep my mind fresh and able to do the next hour’s work. If the ability to check out was somehow taken away from me, I’d be looking for a new job or more likely, would have a nervous breakdown. People aren’t machines. In a situation like the LW’s where there isn’t even a possibility to do work in these moments, just let the worker be (no pun intended).

  31. Just another HR Pro

    I have been doing a lot of research into flexible workplaces (because I work in the opposite of one – and am trying to write a business plan to change that before I spend 2016 looking for new employment). Anyway, there is a fantastic TED talk about basically this very subject. The general premise was that just because someone is sitting at their desk doesn’t mean they are working, then made the point that Social Media is the new coffee/smoke break, and that allowing employees to take breaks away from their work at regular intervals (like the employees who go out to smoke) actually makes them more productive. I know it does for me….

    And, to Alison’s point – if you don’t trust this employee, you need to address that before you are stuck with a vacancy.

    My “smoke break” is about done…back to work. :)

  32. Allison

    I will also mention, the employee should be looped into all this sooner than later. I know, I know, he should KNOW not to do these things! But he’s doing them, rightly or wrongly, and he should know that you’re concerned about it and people have a negative perception because of how often they see it. That alone, without you imposing any new rules, might be enough for him to put the phone down and start figuring out how to be (or just seem) more productive while the spreadsheet’s loading.

    All I know is that if people were concerned about my productivity, I’d rather them tell me when it starts to become an issue, not 3 weeks later after all these people have had, like, 15 different meetings and discussions about how big of an issue it is and what they wanna do about me. Just talk to me! With words!

    1. Doriana Gray

      All I know is that if people were concerned about my productivity, I’d rather them tell me when it starts to become an issue, not 3 weeks later after all these people have had, like, 15 different meetings and discussions about how big of an issue it is and what they wanna do about me. Just talk to me! With words!

      +1 Nothing would upset me more than knowing that my manager or supervisor thought this was an issue, but then didn’t address it with me directly so that I’d have an opportunity to do something about it.

  33. Heather

    I am one that says short breaks are incredibly beneficial to morale and productivity, and casual games especially so. Yes, if someone is playing World of Warcraft at work you’ll have a problem (unless your job is to assess WoW in some way), but casual games give one a break for 1-5 minutes, allowing your brain to work in a very different way, and reset. I know it’s a culture thing that games are seen as less than compared to other break methods, but I think that’s something that should be changed.

  34. ReadItWithSpanishAccent

    This happened to me! I was a receptionist in a TV channel. In an 8-hours shift, I had literally 3 calls and 2 guests, and filled paperwork for… around 10 minutes. That was all. I was not allowed to use my phone, talk to the security guard, use the computer, read, anything. I was supposed to sit staring in front of me and smiling. It was excruciating. Seriously. It felt like torture. The hours seemed years and the anxiety I endured of doing NOTHING and being in COMPLETE SILENCE for hours straight made me crazy.
    I lasted there 3 months.

    1. Chris

      God, that sounds excruciating. I can understand wanting receptionists to be relatively alert at all times, but if they’re going to be that restrictive, then they need to have shifts on desk. Forcing something to do the workplace version of standing at full attention for hours on end is absurd

    2. Elizabeth West

      At Helljob, the front desk barely had any software on it. When I subbed for the receptionist (more than my allotted once a week since she called in so much; I imagine to avoid Evil Coworker), I couldn’t even do my own work up there. The computer wasn’t part of the network even! Luckily, my boss let me do homework–she said it would make me look busy and I might as well take advantage of the time.

      I can’t imagine working your old job. I don’t think I would have lasted three WEEKS.

    3. Rachel

      I had a similar experience at a temp job. It was supposed to be an accounting clerk position….at the front desk, while answering the four phone calls per day. Oh, and the “accounting” was basic data entry that took 90 minutes if I reeeeeallly stretched it out. I lasted less than three weeks.

  35. VictoriaHR

    Back in 2010 when e-readers were just becoming a thing, I had a Sony e-reader and a job that required a lot of photocopying, waiting for many many copies to collate and sort, etc. I would take my e-reader with me, set the photocopier, and stand there and read while the copier churned out what I needed. Because this was hundreds of pages at a time (benefits administration, open enrollment season, printing out lots of benefit packets, etc.), I could get through whole chapters before I had to do anything.

    One of another team’s supervisors saw me reading and reported me to my manager, who wrote me up for it =\

  36. Not So NewReader

    All the comments about the program itself made me think about how this could be an opportunity.

    Can your employee record each time and duration of his down time? You could start advocating for a better program, using his record of down times as a reason. When you do finally encounter a complaint you could say, “I have been pushing for a new program because of all the down time Bob has, and I will continue to push for something that makes better use of Bob’s time and company resources. Meanwhile that is the way the program is and we need Bob available to watch the process as it unfolds.”

  37. the_scientist

    I think everything has already been said here, but I’d like to chime in on this as an analyst who spends a lot of time waiting for things to load/run. I certainly don’t have a “top of the line” computer so I frequently have to deal with lagging when I have too many spreadsheets open, but if I’m running something in SAS on a large dataset, yes, it takes time to run, and yes, I’m probably dicking around on my phone for those 3-5 minutes unless I can respond to an email at the same time (or I’m reading AAM!). I work in a place with a lot of analysts, though, so everyone knows how it goes.

    My thoughts pretty much echo everyone else’s:

    1). If it’s taking causing excel to lag, it’s probably time to look at a different analytic tool. Tableau, Access, SAS, SPSS, Stata, R, JMP- there are a ton of analytic tools out there that are miles better than excel, especially if you’re doing any kind of mathematical modelling work or working with larger datasets. If you’re doing business analytics, Tableau is a big deal where I work. I’ve also heard good things about JMP for data visualization and exploration, but I’ve never used it myself. R is free! There’s nothing more frustrating than not having the right tools to do your job and if that’s the case in your place of work, you’re going to lose good people. Plus, personally, I would positively leap at the chance to learn a new software on the clock, because that’s a marketable skill I can add to my resume. I bet your analyst would love to learn a new tool.

    2). My cubicle is set up so that my back is to the entrance and I HAAAAATE it. I don’t like the feeling of someone “sneaking up on me” and sometimes, if I’m concentrating on something, I will wear one headphone (not both, because then I’ll be really startled!) so I don’t always hear people approaching. If you have a way to re-arrange cubicles so that screens aren’t visible to everyone that walks by- do that.

    3). I think you need to think realistically about what can actually be done in the 3-5 minutes that the analyst is waiting. If I’m using SQL in SAS to create a table from one of our centralized database, it takes about 3-5 minutes for SAS to do that because we’re talking about a dataset with millions of records and thousands of variables. So waiting is just part of that. Plus I generally don’t like to run my whole script at once unless I’ve checked it and know it works- there’s nothing worse than waiting 45 minutes or whatever to run a script and then finding out that you had an error or missed a semi-colon somewhere and it didn’t run! And, finally, it can be difficult to switch your attention from one task to another in a short time frame, especially when it’s something that requires a certain amount of focus.

    I get that 3-5 minutes many times a day adds up, but the individual chunks of time are so small- what do you want that employee to be doing in 3-5 minutes? Making coffee? Going to the bathroom? Responding to email? Writing a to-do list? There’s a limit to how many times you can do any of those things, plus everyone needs a break to disengage during the day. What if the analyst spent those 3-5 minutes reading the news, or reading Ask A Manager rather than playing games on his phone? I do agree that obviously playing Candy Crush or Angry Birds probably doesn’t give the best impression- would it look better if he was reading the news (on his computer, not his phone)?

    I do think the “wasted” time is a problem- but it’s a problem not because of a “slacking” employee, but because the employee clearly doesn’t have the right tools to do their job efficiently. Maybe try looking at it through that lens, instead.

  38. Chris

    To quickly give my opinion on the actual question, I would ask him not to play games, but perhaps permit reading, etc. Maybe a tablet would look less like goofing off? In the long term get more RAM, or stop using excel. Those are literally your only reasonable options. Unless the OP works at a job that entails mindlessly clicking a button repeatedly all day, there is absolutely no work he can get done in that 3 minutes. So put that aside, to start.

    I wanted to address a larger problem, however. You can’t just snap your fingers and change culture, which is why this bit isn’t directly helpful to the OP, but it needs to be addressed. Employees are hired to do a job, not to work. Many businesses seem to view these as the same, but they really aren’t. A job entails certain duties and goals that need to be accomplished. “Work” is the action of completing those duties and goals. Imagine you had an employee who was supposed to write 4 articles a day. This employee completes this in 6 hours, and the last hour is spent doing light admin, email, and personal business (assuming an hour for lunch). Here is where many managers would shout, “we hired you to work, not check your email!”. No, you did not. You hired her to write 4 articles, which she has done.

    Now, if she’s getting it done in 4 hours, then you need to reevaluate her job. That’s totally legit. But that isn’t the employee’s fault.

  39. Anonymous Educator

    I kind of agree with what everyone’s said, even if it’s apparently contradictory:

    * Real productivity matters more than appearances of productivity
    * Appearances can matter, though, in how they affect customer perceptions or workplace morale
    * You definitely want to re-examine using a proper database in lieu of just spreadsheets

    I will also say—even this is an extreme example—when I was a teacher, I made it a point (and this was standard practice, not just mine) to never be alone with a student or, if I had to be alone, to leave the door to my classroom open. Would having the door closed mean I was a bad teacher? Would it mean I was molesting the student? No. Absolutely not. But sometimes you do want to avoid even the appearance of impropriety. Yes, I know this is an extreme example. The basic principle still stands, though: to a certain extent, appearances matter.

    I am absolutely not in favor of having this poor employee stare at a blank screen for five minutes, but there are plenty of non-work-related time-wasting activities you can do on your phone that appear productive. Candy Crush isn’t one of them, unless you work at King or one of its competitors. Typing an email (even a personal one) or reading Ask A Manager would actually seem more productive-looking to me than playing games. A lot of this will depend on your workplace culture. Based on the OP writing in, I’m guessing the workplace culture isn’t “games = productive downtime.”

    Also, I used to work at a place that had an extremely outdated and badly constructed database that hurt all kinds of productivity (not just for analysts). I made a proposal to move to a better database and got a lot of support… unfortunately not from the higher-ups. So sometimes moving to a new database (or any database) is not an option.

  40. Observer

    I pretty much agree with most of the posters. Some specific thoughts:

    He already has a top of the line computer so I can’t think of other resources to make his job faster;

    have you actually spoken to anyone about this? The language you use makes me think that you are not all that tech savvy, so you really do need to talk to someone who has a better handle on this kind of stuff. As others have mentioned, “top of the line” doesn’t mean much if it doesn’t have the upgrades he needs. As well, the amount of memory and type of HD he would probably benefit from generally do not come on “top of the line” computers, and would have to be added, although they might come with a workstation.

    Also, as others have mentioned, the spreadsheet may just not be the right tool for the job. In which case, that’s your next step.

    Even though I know what’s going on, I can’t help but feel he is not being as productive as he could be during those waiting times

    You are an adult. You absolutely CAN “help but feel”. What do you expect him to do to make him more productive during those waiting times? Why would making him look at a blank screen make you think he’s more productive? Also, realize that not only would he not be more productive, he would almost certainly be LESS productive. Even if he was ok with it in theory, people’s brains don’t function well this way, and all you will manage to do it slow him down.

    and I don’t like the idea that he can play phone games while on the clock.

    Why?

    Remember YOU are the one who says that
    If I were to tell him to put his phone away, he’d still need to wait for the sheets to load and it completely locks the computer up when it’s loading, so there is not other work that can be done while something is loading.

    So why is it a problem? It honestly sounds like sour grapes.

    It also sounds to me that to the extent that there is a perception problem it’s coming from you. Your perceptions are, by your own description, unreasonable and unrealistic. But, it’s not surprising if other people pick up your perceptions because it makes sense that the manager should have a clue.

    Also, the attitude and management style that are coming through seem conducive to petty scorekeeping and judgementalism among staff.

  41. super anon

    This reminds me a lot of when I worked in food service (i worked at a movie theatre, but primarily worked concessions), where “if you have time to lean, you have time to clean” was your mantra. there were on occasion very slow days where no one came (think giant blizzards with 40+ cm of snow and no one in their right mind was out, but our theatre was still open) and everything was perfectly clean and organized and counted, and my boss would *still* find something for me to clean so I could look “busy” to the non-existent customers. I have distinct memories of being handed a toothbrush and told to scrub the grout between the tiles because of this mantra. I was the most senior frontline worker there and really good at what I did, but that level of micromanagement was one of my main motivators to get an education and find a career where i could manage my time myself.

    All that to say, if I was this employee and was told to stare at a blank screen and do nothing for several minute long stretches a day, I would be looking for a new job very quickly.

  42. Heaven's Thunder Hamme

    As an analyst – chime me in on yet another:

    1. How old is his PC? A “top of the line” PC from 2 years ago now is about a middle tier computer for enthusiasts and serious performance users.

    It really may need upgrading to cores that have more gigahertz, a watercooler so it can be safely overclocked, more RAM – possibly higher quality ram as well, a solid state hard drive instead of a hard disk drive etc.

    2. As many others have said – SQL, C, Matlab, R, SAS, Tableau, WebFOCUS, or some other kind of Analytical/ Business Intelligence software may be needed here.

    1. Turtle Candle

      Your first point is a great one. My work doesn’t require terribly high-end machines, but I am a gamer, and when I buy a new personal computer, I shell out for a boutique high-end laptop, well in excess of what my employer would provide for my work computer. And that gives me a very different perception of what “top of the line” means: my fresh new work laptop may be “top of the line” according to my IT department and still underperform compared to my year-old gaming laptop.

      For me, that isn’t a big deal, because I don’t do anything all that processor- or memory-intensive at work, and if Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate starts to chug on my two-year-old home laptop, well, that’s my problem to fix. But it does highlight how very different perceptions of what is “top of the line” or “high end” can be.

    2. BananaPants

      Agreed. I’m an engineer and most of my data analysis is done in Matlab now – and I consider myself an advanced Excel user. It just doesn’t work as efficiently as Matlab can on a big dataset. I often get test data in tabular form with thousands of lines and columns each and then do a ton of manipulation, statistical analysis, and other processing. I’ve found that it’s more efficient and pleasant to spend a half day writing a Matlab script to batch process all of it in an hour, rather than to spend an hour making a crappy Excel template with macros that will make me want to throw things while I use it to process files manually for a day and a half.
      I had a grad school class last semester that was basically numerical solutions to systems of anywhere from 3-12 very complicated differential and algebraic equations. Once I got the algorithm implemented I could do a problem in Excel but Matlab gave a much neater implementation.

      Learn basic programming, kids. I’m not a computer scientist or software engineer, but I use the principles I learned in my undergrad Intro to Programming (in C++) all the time when processing data.

  43. Chriama

    OP, I’m wondering if this question comes from other concerns about his work. Is he a good analyst? If not, it’s possible that the game playing is a symptom or cause of the poor work because he’s using more than the 5 minutes *each time* or he takes a long time to get back in focus after the spreadsheet loads.

    However, if he’s an otherwise good worker I think you need to consider what your real concerns are. 3-5 minutes really isn’t enough time to switch to another task and then back again, so other than getting him a faster computer or adopting a new program I don’t know that anything you do would really increase his productivity. Getting a second computer would probably decrease his overall efficiency (e.g. copying data from the spreadsheet would involve sending an email to himself instead of just cut-and-pasting).

    I think it’s worth talking to him about the perception and suggesting other things he could do with the time that doesn’t look so blatantly “non-work”. Would it be ok for him to bring a tablet or ereader in and read or browse the internet? I do think you need to separate your own biases (e.g. the idea that he shouldn’t be allowed to play games on company time even though there’s literally nothing else work related he could be doing) from the real concerns that exist here (as Alison mentioned above, the wrong higher up seeing him not working and not bothering to get more information could have unexpected ramifications on his career).

  44. The Bimmer Guy

    I think this is one where you could actually be candid with your employee. Explain to him that you understand he has to wait, but sometimes it appears to others (including visitors and higher-ups) that he spends excess amounts of time not working, and just ask if he can be conscious of that while he’s choosing which activities to do while waiting for those spreadsheets.

    1. Anonymous Educator

      But I think that will just invite the employee to say “What should I be doing?” which is a valid question, since the OP herself is unclear what should be done with that downtime.

  45. Dubby

    I have to deal with this in my position. Sometimes a processing task will take a few minutes, others longer. Right now I have a report that takes 20 minutes to run. I have the best laptop my office can provide, so there isn’t much wiggle room there. Luckily I can switch over to other tasks while that is running. But sometimes the processing length is too short to start on something else but too long to just sit there staring.

    So, presuming that his computer isn’t completely locked up…

    That might be a good chance to work on reading through industry news blogs or something relevant. I use this time to skim through email notifications, etc. However, when you’re doing an incredibly mentally intensive task, taking 3-5 minute breaks can be incredibly helpful. Staring at the same code or problem often won’t give you an answer if you’re stuck. I’ll grab coffee or use the bathroom and take the long way to get there. I’ve solved many problems by walking away and staring out the window for a while. Just because you don’t see me typing or staring at a spreadsheet doesn’t mean I’m not working.

    For longer tasks, talk to him about professional development stuff. That length of processing time for a spreadsheet tells me that it may be time to investigate other tools. This might be a good time to work on learning Python or R for analysis in the background. For example, I read AAM during these kinds of breaks. It is a nice light break from the cognitively intense work, but still fits under a professional development scope. I have some other feeds that I monitor for work stuff.

    Now, if his computer is completely locked up…

    I’ve been there. I had a task where I had to close out everything, including my email, to run. No web browser, no email, IMs, etc. Offering him an ipad or some other device to help him use this time productively might be a good option. However, it might also be a good case for getting a beefier computer he could remote into to do this work. In this kind of situation other people could have their intensive tasks processing as well. We ended up going with this route and the processing time was cut in half with the bonus that it wasn’t my computer being locked down. Ask other members of your team if they face painful processing delays. There may be other teams that face this problem and could use a shared resource, or there may even be another team that has that kind of resource that this person could tap into.

  46. Jetta

    The time a manager sends dealing with non-issues such as this one is also a wasted, albeit at a higher cost because the manager likely makes more money. Not a way to be competitive.

  47. Angel

    Any spreadsheet that requires 3-5 minutes just to load either needs a full redesign or to be switched from excel to access.

  48. OP Manager

    Thanks Alison and everyone for your comments. I am not a regular on AAM however will be becoming one, you’ve all shared some great insight and I appreciate your thoughtful replies today. As far as the technical side of things, I’ll be doing what I can to address it, I’m not very techy but I think giving him another computer would help and if there is other software we can use outside of Excel I’ll be looking into it with our IT folks.

    I think the bigger part of the question revolves around my own perception and something I need to work on as a manager, I am much more used to a operational environment where everyone is constantly working on something, so getting an analyst has been a working environment change that I am still working on getting used to.

    I fear that my analyst can take advantage of the situation by saying that something is loading or by being on his phone longer than necessary, however I know that is a negative perception to carry into the office and I need to let his work speak for itself.

    1. Ruffingit

      Sure, your analyst could take advantage of the situation, but I think you would do well to give him the benefit of the doubt unless he proves himself to be the advantage taking type.

      In my last job, aka Pit O’Hell, I had a boss who jumped all over us for every single thing that looked non-productive including being on cell phones for a few minutes or chatting in the office for a couple of minutes. It was just ridiculous and I left the job over that and many other ridiculous things he did. I’m now in an environment where we are allowed to chat, laugh, and be on our phones and even Facebook. So long as we get our work done, it’s all good. And I totally appreciate that kind of respect and trust. I know that I can be on Facebook for a few minutes without being verbally burned at the stake and in turn, my boss knows I’m not going to leave my work undone. It’s awesome and I feel so, so lucky to have found a reasonable, fun working environment.

    2. Anonymous Educator

      I fear that my analyst can take advantage of the situation by saying that something is loading or by being on his phone longer than necessary

      It sounds like this is the real issue and not the phone. Do you trust this employee? Does he deliver good results? I would focus more on the tangibles he can deliver than on the phone piece.

      1. JessaB

        It can also be that the LW doesn’t have a great grasp of what the analyst’s work product is supposed to look like. If you cannot tell whether someone is goofing off or doing the maximum (reasonable- let’s not get down to seconds and OMG you could have done one more line every ten minutes, but you stopped to sneeze,) amount of work that they’re able to, that’s a totally different issue. In addition to looking at more ways to make the process better, the LW should probably also get a handle on what “getting the job done,” should look like in work product and time to finish.

  49. Rubyrose

    Sorry, haven’t have time to read all of the comments, so this has probably been addressed. A 3-5 minute load on a spreadsheet to me is indicative of information that should not be kept on a spreadsheet! And to have this occur potentially several times an hour? You need someone else to evaluate these and recommend a better way to get what you need. My guess is that this worker is the one who originally put together this “system” and will be resistant to having a better way suggested.

    Think about what would happen if this person were hit by the bus and was not there to work the spreadsheets – what would you do then? Get this fixed now.

    1. Rubyrose

      One other thing – any business analyst worth anything should be doing some research on finding a better way to do this job. If this person is not, that says something to me about their skill set and how fit they really are for the position.

      1. JessaB

        Presuming of course management lets them. There are a lot of places where equipment and programmes are set in stone by upper management/corporate bosses, the employee may have made suggestions a long time ago and has realised that asking for anything is not going to happen, so just gave up on it.

  50. One of the Sarahs

    I think other people have mentioned this, and Alison did too, but just want to reiterate that being told to *look* busy when there’s nothing else you can do (can’t do anything on computer because hellsheet is loading, no filing etc) is incredibly stressful, and the sort of thing that has people running for the exits. IMO it made me super-anxious, and added all these 5 mins of actively hating the job and getting frustrated with everything, rather than shrugging my shoulders and saying “it is what it is”

  51. Beezus

    I know I’m really late to the game on this one, but I do similar work to what’s described in the letter, and my solution was to get a computer with lots of processing power to help with the spreadsheet work, and a standard laptop. I use the laptop directly – one window is a remote access link to the PC where I’m doing all my spreadsheet work, and while I’m waiting for something to process, I minimize the remote access window and use the laptop for work that’s light on data processing (data scrubbing, analysis touch-up, answering emails, etc.) I prefer to finish one light processing task before going back to the PC, so sometimes that 3-5 minute processing task sits for another 10 minutes until I get back to it, but I’m arguably more productive overall. YMMV, and multitasking like that isn’t for everyone, but it’s an option.

  52. Avna

    Guys, I appreciate the fact that you’re looking for ways to help the analyst not have as much downtime and suggesting things like more computers or other optimization, but I’m kinda scared of where that goes. If a perfect solution is found, should he have no down time at all and be constantly working?

    That’s not healthy, and I feel like a lot of the “do this/switch to a different program etc” comments have that as the end game. We’re only human. Our ancestors were hunter gatherers, and it’s only very recently that we started getting office jobs and tasks that require hours of sitting around staring image screens. We’re not built for it, we need breaks.

    You get less productive if you’re tired out from focusing intently on your work and nothing else. not more. The video game industry is infamous in this regard (Kotaku has interviews with people who worked in the games industry, I recommend reading them) insane work hours lead to decreased work quality overall, with people making tons of mistakes and bad decisions they wouldn’t have made if they weren’t so stressed and micromanaged.

    The bigger issue here seems to be the OP’s discomfort with the analyst not working even when they CANT, which is baffling because they know exactly why that is. I would be furious if my boss made me face a wall “just for the sake of it” and would start looking for work elsewhere.

    1. Observer

      No, most of the people who are suggesting upgrades / better tools are not aiming to 100% up time. In fact, most of the people making these suggestions have also explicitly talked about the need for break and think time. It’s just that the amount of enforced wait time seems to be very high.

      I know that I would hugely frustrated if I had to wait for my computer for 3-5 minutes, several times an hour. If the analyst is any good, I suspect that he is, too.

      Also, if you notice, both Alison and the posters explicitly address the issue of expecting the person to look at the screen “just because”. And, to his (her?) credit, the OP seems to be getting it, as well.

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