There are many characteristics of work that are generation-dependent. For example, Baby Boomers came of age when the very concept of work meant an office, factory, or other physical locale. Communication was by telephone and meetings generally took place when everyone could participate from the same room. Today, while this may be familiar, it is no longer necessary or expected.
There are also some workplace behaviors we seem to take for granted that are common across generations. Anyone who works in an office environment every day has encountered at least some slacking off. Frankly, this is often simply expected of employees who are at their desk or in their office for hours on end; everyone needs to take a break once in a while. What is less routine, however, is how they take that break.
Here is where we get back to the differences among generations. Remember the old expression “hanging around the water-cooler”? It refers to the idle chitchat that occurs not just around the proverbial water-cooler but anywhere in the workplace. A personal telephone call made from an office landline is another form of shirking that can be associated with a certain era.
It used to be that managers could easily observe when staff members were not doing their job. They might be hanging out with some of their colleagues sharing gossip or football scores; alternatively, they could be on a personal phone call. Either way, managers could efficiently and immediately end the side conversations.
In today’s work environment, though, identifying when people are slacking off is more difficult. To begin with, some people don’t work in offices, and even when they do slacking off can be imperceptible. Chitchat doesn’t typically happen in person, but occurs on social media, even among those that sit 10 feet away from each other. Office colleagues are friends on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and Pinterest. They can share their weekend activities not only through words but through photos, emoji, and even the occasional video. Think about how much richer the exchange is, and how much more difficult for a manager to discern. In the case of personal phone calls, today’s replacement is a text or an email. What’s more, it’s relatively inconspicuous.
Social media platforms are becoming ever more pervasive, making it even more difficult to remain focused at work. It is also easier than ever to take a break from your job to conduct some personal business. The challenge for managers is multifaceted: They need to be aware of the need for people to decompress every so often and do something non-job-related, but they also need to set clear rules on how many breaks are appropriate. And when someone is abusing breaks, they need to figure out how to get that employee back to work.