Help me understand work habits. How much time is spent ...not working?
January 10, 2015 11:57 AM   Subscribe

At work, no one has ever monitored my time or even told me what hours I should be working, so I'm not sure what is appropriate. I'm a good performer, but am still on edge and worried I could be seen as inappropriate. I understand no one can give 100% all the time, but lately I spend more time browsing or chatting with coworkers. I don't want to get a surprise reprimand or be viewed as a slacker. Please help me determine what is and isn't acceptable in the workplace.

On my least productive days, I can spend a cumulative 2-3 hours a day browsing the web. 1-2 hours is normal, Sometimes, a coworker stops by my cubicle and just chats for an hour or more. I get self-conscious about that, but I dont often ask them to leave. Meetings can feel like a waste of time, but these are company approved so I'm not concerned about them.

Luckily, I'm one of the more productive members on our team (with metrics to prove it). I'm not worried about my job performance or output, but I worry about being seen as a time waster. After about a year working here, nobody has talked to me about how I should use my time, so I still don't know what is appropriate. I strive for good work ethic, but I don't want burnout either. Since this is my first real job (software engineer), I'd like to know what is normal and what isn't.

I work in a cubicle environment so it's hard for me to tell how others spend their time. I know I'm not the only one who browses or chats... sometimes I see people watching videos or playing games, but I dont know how often they do it.
posted by WCF to Work & Money (24 answers total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
As long as you're work gets done, you're good.

If you don't have a definition of what needs to get done, then I'd say 6 hours of an 8 hour day being fully concentrated on work is good.

Also likely depends on exactly what you do.
posted by Sonic_Molson at 11:59 AM on January 10, 2015 [8 favorites]

Best answer: I would put the kibosh on chatting in your cubicle for upward of an hour because it's so visible. People notice that sort of thing. Dicking around on the internet? More or less everyone does that on the downlow throughout the day and as long as you're getting your work done, a reasonable employer probably won't care. I once had a job where entire days would pass with almost no work for me to do, and I had a lot of guilt about it until a friend pointed out, "Look, your employer thinks the work you do is worth what they pay you even if you aren't busy all the time." And that was true. As long as you're meeting your goals and doing a good job, it sounds like to me you're within normal limits.
posted by something something at 12:02 PM on January 10, 2015 [21 favorites]

Thanks for asking this question because it's something I've wondered about. If it's something you ever become concerned about, that you're not doing enough work at work, I've found RescueTime helpful.
posted by kat518 at 12:09 PM on January 10, 2015 [2 favorites]

Someone said to me once 'some days you work at work and some days you don't'. That looks awful written down but in certain environments this definitely seems to be true! In those.. I can flit between feeling really guilty and then confident an employer does indeed get their pound of flesh when I'm super busy.. so it kind of evens out.
I have been in places where I think I would prefer not to have the distraction of the net and my mind boggles as to why employers don't let people work at home a lot more.. but maybe that's another subject. Great question and I'll be curious to see the replies! Sociologists and organisational psychologists must have looked at this!
posted by tanktop at 12:15 PM on January 10, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: If you're really good at your job, and really efficient, you can work about 6 hours a week. My last few jobs have been kind of boring for that reason. (Hence my posting history.)

I like being engaged at work, and I enjoy working on puzzles. I've done lots of research and when allowed, I watch You Tube to learn more about my programs (Salesforce and Excel). I also see what's out there that other companies use for Business Intelligence. Why reinvent the wheel if someone out there is doing something better.

In my past few jobs, I've done one-on-ones weekly with my managers where I cover:

1. What I've finished this week.

2. What I'm working on.

3. What I'm doing next week.

This keeps everything moving along and there are no nasty surprises. If I'm working on something that's not a priority, I've had a manger say, "Hey, move that to next week, we're updating the specs." If something is still on my radar, but it's not started, a manager will say, "Oh! Turns out the managers meeting is moved up a week, can you turn out that deck by Wednesday?" It's freaking awesome!

Also, it's a way of letting your manager know you have bandwidth. I've told managers that I'm free, and I've been told, "there's a project coming in the next week, hang loose."

Have good communication with your manager and things shouldn't come as a surprise.

If you want to chit chat with people in their cubes, walk around the office with a file, that way it looks like you got waylaid on your way to doing something important. Never let people chit chat with you in your cube. Get up and say, "I'm on my way to the copier, come with me."

posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:16 PM on January 10, 2015 [33 favorites]

It depends on your workplace culture. I've worked at offices where you could hear a pin drop and nobody says anything for the entire day. At other places people are blatantly watching stupid Youtube videos with the sound on and throwing footballs around.

The other variable is how much your manager knows, or cares, about how much you are working. Some managers really value face time. Others don't care how much you work as long as you get your work done.

You said you're one of the more productive members and can prove this, and working in a cubicle, ostensibly people can't really tell how much you are working anyway. Sounds good to me - carry on.
posted by pravit at 12:26 PM on January 10, 2015 [2 favorites]

I think the amount of time it's acceptable to spend surfing the Internet varies massively from place to place. You need a way of finding out how much your colleagues surf, because if you're the outlier who spends much more time at it than anyone else in the company that's likely to be noticed.

At a place I used to work, a colleague got into a lot of trouble for booking a holiday while at work. She had just finished a major project that she'd worked very hard on for months. The next day she spent a morning researching and booking this holiday for herself. One of the jobs of the IT guys was to look for this sort of thing. They reported her and she was nearly fired. So be careful!

In person chats are better but definitely carry a notebook if you go for coffee with a colleague or two.
posted by hazyjane at 12:27 PM on January 10, 2015

I would definitely check in with your manager, very casually. Ask for feedback on your productivity; do not mention you are worried you're slacking, just say you're checking in.

As per other comments, avoid the chats at your cube. Too visible.

I got dinged at my last job for personal time on the computer. I was working my ass off and getting very positive feedback, but my boss did not like the fact that I had ANY non work-related thing up on my computer screen. (This drove me INSANE, because the way I work best is to power through for 45 minutes, get up from my desk, come back and fool around for 10 minutes and let my brain relax, then off again for another 45 minutes of solid work. Gratefully quit that job on maternity leave.)

On preview: Yeah, the IT person is going to know everything, and they really do check (it's the way IT people waste *their* time, heh). If you're chummy with them, you could ask how you compare to your colleagues.
posted by Specklet at 12:32 PM on January 10, 2015 [3 favorites]

If the job is important to you, and you want to advance...

You should be working 1% more than the person you consider the hardest worker in the company...

If the job doesn't matter to you, and you have no work ethic, don't work at all.....
posted by HuronBob at 12:43 PM on January 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

As long as you get your work done, no one cares. Everyone dicks around on Facebook (or AskMeFi) at work. If you can, don't let them see that you're doing that. Make it look like you're working. I have a privacy screen on my computer. I also use empty meeting rooms/offices to take a break and dick around online, but people just think I am working and need quiet. You can also probably see what sort of monitoring software is on your computer and what the company policy is on computer spying. All of my offices have allowed for it in their policies, but I don't know of any that actually wasted time watching what people did on their computers unless there was a specific reason.

What I wouldn't do is act jumpy about it or talk about it -- being self-conscious and defensive about it will draw more attention to it than if you just owned it and did what you wanted. Acting guilty makes it seems like you are doing something wrong, which it sounds like you definitely are not. I definitely would not ask about this whatsoever. Feel free to check in with your boss to ask about your performance and make sure you're on the right track -- it lets you know where you stand and makes it look like you care enough to take the initiative to ask -- just don't even remotely ask about this specific question.
posted by AppleTurnover at 12:43 PM on January 10, 2015 [3 favorites]

I would err on the side of too much work. I have to say as a long time worker who has managed many a worker, the question itself is a little bit something to me. I would get all my work finished and then see if there is anything else you can do. Of course, you should check your emails and call the cable company, but that should be sporadic and the exception. Building in hours of downtime, even if you are the most productive person in the company seems odd. YMMV.
posted by 724A at 12:48 PM on January 10, 2015

If you're chummy with them, you could ask how you compare to your colleagues.

Nth-ing making pals with the IT people. They can clue you in as to what's being monitored on the network. Things like what time do you log-in and log-off. Whether they do any key-logging. Whether they keep logs of your web activity, etc.

I also agree that, as long as the work gets done on time, you shouldn't have any problems. That said, I have worked in a place where work was getting done, on time, and done well, yet the owner had a real bug up his ass over employees occasionally leaving work five or so minutes early. He actually kept a log for a month of the times employees left for the day, then, at the next staff meeting, he berated us because, by his calculation, we had cost the company thousands of dollars in lost revenue.
posted by Thorzdad at 12:49 PM on January 10, 2015

Now that I am self employed, I stop working when I'm done. I often find that in 3-4 hours, I've accomplished as much as I'd get done in a full 8- hour day working for somebody else. And that's while still checking Facebook, email and a few favorite websites as I work. That leads me to believe that as much as 4-5 hours out of every 8 was wasted time in my old office environments. Some of the waste was occupied by meetings or bureaucratic useless crap that my employers approved of, some by surfing the web, getting a coffee, or chit chatting with colleagues.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 12:59 PM on January 10, 2015 [5 favorites]

Best answer: If you're a salaried employee in an office environment then they aren't paying you for putting in hours like in retail. It's the application of your brain to various problems. And that never will take up 8 to 5 minus lunch.

I used to be self conscious about this too, but if you have halfway decent bosses, they know who gets stuff done, who doesn't, and whose results are better and worse. If the work's getting done, and well, the amount of time you spend doing it is irrelevant.

And as others have noted, not everyone can be on all the time. In your career there will be days, weeks, months, and possibly even *years* where you just aren't on. If you get stuff done well when you're on, the off periods are fine.

As for chatting with workmates, the most effective people are those who have good relationships with others. That sort of casual interaction has subtle payoffs down the road. Spend an hour chatting with someone about the kids' sports or whatever, and when you need to work together to get something done, it's much easier.

So the short version is that unless you work for jerks, I don't think you have anything to worry about.
posted by colin_l at 1:04 PM on January 10, 2015 [13 favorites]

Best answer: This article opens with a frank admission that these kinds of things are expected in an office environment. The author is very well respected in the software world.
posted by colin_l at 1:05 PM on January 10, 2015 [8 favorites]

Best answer: According to The Now Habit, a person can do about 15 hours of heads-down, fully-concentrated work per week without burning out. (I don't recall the exact figure, and surely it varies from person to person, but that's about the right ballpark.)
posted by BrashTech at 2:25 PM on January 10, 2015 [8 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks everyone. I appreciated reading through each and every contribution here. There were some good insights and I enjoyed hearing about cultures within your own workplaces.

This does give me a better idea of what's normal within work culture. I don't mean to sound self-pitying, but I've always been one to question my own self-worth, so I hope my question didn't come off as an "if you have to ask" type of deal.
posted by WCF at 2:37 PM on January 10, 2015 [3 favorites]

I am also a software engineer and had similar work habits early in my career. And I think that's exactly it - this is fundamentally a junior employee issue, because when you're just getting started you have a very narrow view of your job (narrow in both the sense that you don't know much about what other people are working on, and you don't know much about what's coming up in your area or what has happened in the past). But you've been at your job a year, so maybe it's time to start broadening your viewpoint a bit? A couple things to think about:

- Where do you want your career to go in a couple years? Are there any skills you could pick up that would be helpful in broadening your skillset? If you're a front-end developer, can you play around with Dropwizard or something else to let you work on back end services? If you're a back-end developer, take a look at Angular. If you don't know SQL, learn SQL. If you don't know ruby or another scripting language, learn ruby. If you only know scripting languages, learn Rust.

- What's annoying about the current application you're working on? Maybe nobody's asked you to fix it, but is there a crash you could track down and fix, or some blocks of dead code you could remove, or a unit test that's been ignored and failing for ages you could update. Maybe there's a refactor you could do on the codebase, or something slow you could rewrite to be faster.

- What's broken in your current software development process? Do you have version control, a bug tracker, unit tests, continuous building, automatic packaging and/or deployment? If not, work on setting them up (roughly in that order). If so, is there anything about any of them you could improve?

Like I said at the start, I was like you at the start of my career. Two observations from now: as a lead, these days the people I really like are the ones who actively look for problems and fix them without me having to delegate (it's possible to take this habit too far, but it sounds like that's not your problem at the moment); and when I look back at the unscheduled periods I had during work, the time I put into refactoring code and learning new languages and tinkering with tools was way more memorable and useful and fun than the time I spent on facebook 1999.
posted by inkyz at 2:48 PM on January 10, 2015 [7 favorites]

Businesses and bosses know they're paying for sprint capacity in part. You can't be 100% busy all the time or they'd be in trouble when the surge came. With that said, try not to be too in-your-face about it. An hour-long shoot-the-breeze once in a while? Ok. Routinely? Starting to be stink-eye territory.

I'm primarily a support/oversight person; if production doesn't need me, I'm on my own. My general rule of thumb (for myself) is, 5-10 min of screwing around (e.g., metafilter) then if there's something I can be doing, I do it now, not later. If there's really not anything I can be doing, I have a number of choices. Sometimes I study or do professional development-type things. Sometimes I try to do one of my boss's tasks for him. Sometimes I go around visiting, which is more important than it sounds like. (Strengthening networks, rumor mill intel/counterintel ops.) Sometimes I think about what I do on a big-picture, meta level. How can I improve the process? Sometimes I'm just feeling lazy and watch youtube videos and that's ok.

My general rule of thumb (for my employees) is, if they're getting their job done to my satisfaction, that's unrelated to what they're doing right now. I don't mind seeing a little screwing around. I actually take that as a indicator (one, of many) that things are going smoothly, no crises in progress. I'll say this, though. I REMEMBER who's screwing around. Because the minute I ask for a favor, something extra out of someone, that's definitely a factor in how I feel if they act reluctant about it. And missing deadlines for things sometimes happens for legit reasons, and sometimes because someone's been screwing around too much.

I might feel like intervening if someone's watching youtube and I know they have a thing to do, and I'm not confident I know that thing is going to get done. My employees know this, and are good about keeping me confident with status reports and plan discussions, so they can screw off in plain sight in complete safety. :)
posted by ctmf at 3:00 PM on January 10, 2015 [2 favorites]

Oh, and one thing I do during down time that a lot of people could stand to do more (in my opinion) is look at my list of things I think I'm waiting on other people for. Then I think to myself: Do those people know that? Are they going to come through for me? When was the last time I checked? You can definitely be too annoying about that, but in my experience most people have the opposite problem - assuming too much and then being let down by avoidable miscommunications.
posted by ctmf at 3:09 PM on January 10, 2015 [7 favorites]

It depends on the job. Some of them are fine as long as your work is getting done. Others will nitpick you to death. And still others are all about the "lookism," i.e. if someone wanders over you'd BETTER not be caught with YouTube or else indicate you're on your break while you do that.

In general, what you should do is (a) finish everything you can first, and (b) hide your screen when someone comes over.
posted by jenfullmoon at 6:32 PM on January 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

I think there are two issues here: How productive you should be and how productive you should appear. Regarding the latter, you should be really careful about being too chatty (and this is coming from someone who talks way to much). It doesn't look good. A lot of work life is politics, and if you're viewed as a slacker it can be bad politically.
posted by radioamy at 11:30 PM on January 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

One other thing I'll say as a supervisor is: while I'm ok with you screwing around on the internets or whatever to some extent, don't embarrass me. If someone comes to you for something work-related and you tell them to wait while you finish your cat video, I WILL make sure that never happens again. And if MY director or someone important comes in the room, it would be wise, as a courtesy to me, to gracefully wrap it up and get involved with some real work. I mean, hiding screens and looking obviously and conspicuously guilty is bad too, but defiantly watching YouTube with your feet on the desk while my boss gives ME the eyebrow... is a thing that has been done before and didn't go over too well. Give me some plausible deniability, at least.

Hopefully this entire comment is obvious and wouldn't need to be said. But like I said, it hasn't always been obvious to everyone.
posted by ctmf at 12:26 AM on January 11, 2015 [5 favorites]

A data point: my wife had a job where she was measurably more productive with fewer errors. She went from 40 hours a week to 32, then to 20, and maintained her output because she didn't chit-chat or take smoke breaks.

Everyone else was enormously relieved when she quit. :7)
posted by wenestvedt at 3:47 PM on January 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

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