My friend was a bit shocked when his new manager mentioned in a meeting that he would not like to see them taking time reading newspapers in the office, which most of them hardly in fact.
This is the dreaded production line management syndrome.
In a production line, the production operators must keep working to keep the production line running. If any production worker stops or slows down in their track, this will halt the entire production line, downstream and upstream. That is why the priority of a production line manager is to ensure that all their operators are consistently working at the work station along the production line. Slag in a production line is not appreciated nor wanted.
The thing about such mentality is that its easier to implement and to think of your staff as menial production workers, rather than an intelligent being with emotions and needs and as a manager your role is to build a conducive environment and look after those needs. Most if not a lot of managers try to think that they are doing the latter, but still trap themselves in the former.
I feel that a lot of managers lack the confidence in their management abilities, they like to see that things are in control and that they staff appear to be working furiously to solve unfathomable problems. To them, this reflects their management ability to their managers and their peers. Of course, many times such mentality actually flows downstream from top management.
So when staff seems to be slacking, not doing anything or even have some fun at work, alarm bells start to ring in the naive manager’s head that his ability to manage is crumbling. Work after all needs to be serious and hated, not fun. No! Nobody is supposed to find work enjoyable!
The problem, of course, is that most office people being normal human beings only can be effective and productive for that long. Plus the fact that a lot of their work are not single task and repetitive. So treating them like a production worker and ensure that they appear to be continuously work is actually counter productive.
Slack is very important in the office environment, especially in my kind of Windows server support environment where we have to attend to short-term operational issues and mid to long term projects. Slack allows for quiet time for the brain to start being creative and this where where most innovations and improvements come from, if you are constantly busy fighting fire, you will not have time to think about why the fire is even starting or how to prevent the fire or even how to fight the fire better next time.
A confident manager actually plans for slack to happen in his team and are happy to see their staff “slacking off”, yet producing effective results. One of the issues when this happen is that the manager or his manager may begin to question if there are too little work to be done or if less people will make the team look busier. Then this is where the difference between a good manager and a bad manager comes in. A good manager will be able to justify the slack and explain the good work being done by the team due to the slack. A bad manager simply freaks out and orders everyone to “appear” to work.
I guess that one of the reasons why managers fear people not looking busy is that they lack setting some concrete and measurable objectives for the team and team members to achieve. As such, they simply don’t know if the team is achieving their objective because they are either too difficult to measure or does not really make sense to the team members at all. When objectives are understood by the team and they are measurable, then slack does not pose any threats to the manager. If a team member is not producing the objectives, but slacking too much, it becomes easier to identify.