Informal behavior: what is it? For the purpose of this article, let’s define informal behaviors as all behaviors that are not a result of formal requirements stated by managers. Some of them may be related to professional purposes, others may be behaviors that result from laziness or selfishness.
Employees in a company with no informal behaviors at all would spend their time doing the exact tasks assigned to them by their superiors. Purpose of all tasks would be bringing company nearer to its main purpose. On the other hand, employees in a company with a high level of informal behaviors would spend a significant part of their time talking, entertaining, building social relations, drinking coffee or gossiping. Part of their tasks would be related to forming good relations in a company, for example, one’s task could be to organize darts competition.
Examples of informal behaviors
During my work in software creating companies, I have seen a lot of behaviors that did not seem to be related to the formal responsibilities of employees:
- Programmers, who spend 80% of their working time at computers, tend to spend every free minute socializing. One of the most common excuses is making a cup of tea. Programmers usually use text communicators (for example Slack) to synchronize with their friends from different rooms. Then, they go to the kitchen and spend there about 20-30 minutes waiting for coffee or tea to get ready and chatting. The consequence of such a behavior is reduced amount of time spent on developing software.
- People spend part of their time surfing in the Internet.
- When new decisions about the future of the company arrive, rooms change into a brainstorm meeting, where all possible consequences of these decisions are discussed.
- When there are two groups developing two parts of the system that had to cooperate with each other, a common behavior is a simple game – people try to find as many bugs in the “opponent’s” code as possible.
- Since there was no canteen in one company I worked for, the staff organized themselves and created a system for ordering food.
- In every company there are informal groups of friends or people having similar interests. They spend more time and cooperate more often with one another even if their responsibilities do not require any contact at all.
Reasons for forming informal behaviors
People can be considered selfish creatures. We tend to do what is profitable for us, not what is profitable for the group (company). Most employees perceive their work as something less interesting than forming relations with their colleagues, drinking, eating or playing games with them. It’s no wonder that – if not controlled – they tend to spend most of their working time doing something different than they are expected to do.
There are several common needs that people try to fulfill with informal behaviors:
- Need for having social network – people tend to build relations with their colleagues instead of working. This includes speaking, playing games, exchanging messages (Facebook, e-mails etc.)
and discussing problems related to their work.
- Need for fun – many of existing jobs are extremely boring and people try to do something more interesting to change their moods.
- Need for knowing the actual situation in the company – people want to understand relations within their company and rules that it is driven by. Their also want to have information about
current financial situation of the company and changes that will be introduced by managers in the future.
Impact on the effectiveness
It is easy to notice that many of the aforementioned behaviors have a bad impact on the effectiveness of the company. If not controlled, people spend majority of their time doing something different than requested. But let’s take a look at the advantages of informal behaviors. One important effect is creation of informal relations in the group. People make friends with each other, get to know more information about their colleagues’ skills and finally, they build a close bond with the company. The atmosphere becomes pleasant and fulfills their need of being a part of a greater group. They won’t change their job willingly. One of the most important side effects of making tea breaks is that programming requires having fresh mind. Breaks let programmers rest, speak about their problems with more experienced friends and find even more creative solution to the problem. It is not clear if such behaviors really decrease efficiency.
I have heard several times about companies that tried to forbid all forms of informal behaviors to increase time that employees spend working. The side effect was a strong and negative impact on employees’ moods. After a while, a significant part of employees decided to quit. In the long term every company creates its image in the minds of potential employees and over time it will be more and more difficult to keep forbidding informal behaviors and still be able to find new employees. And cost of changing image is extremely high. On the other hand, we have all seen that governmental departments do not usually work as effectively as they should. One reason of such a situation is ineffective work of employees who feel no pressure to speed up their work, so they spend most of their time surfing the Internet and speaking with colleagues.
How to deal with informal behaviors?
As shown earlier, many informal behaviors can really increase efficiency of the particular company. The most important factor, when it comes to dealing with informal behaviors, is to determine the real impact on the effectiveness. If the behavior is actually positive or neutral, then it will be probably better to simply leave things as they are. However, if you noticed that the considered behavior has strong negative impact on your company, then you really have three possibilities:
- Forbid behavior.
- Change its structure to reduce its negative impact.
- Change its structure and use it to the company’s advantage.
When forbidding a behavior it is important to remember that people have a tendency to try to break all existing limitations and rules. I know about a company, where time that employees spend making their tea was considered to be too long. The general director decided to reduce it by having hot water always ready in a kettle. What he got was that the first thing employees did when going to kitchen, was to pour out the water and take fresh one. Additional effort to have hot water at all times was wasted.
A good idea would be to provide an alternative way of getting a similar form of gain. For example, reading web pages could be replaced by reading magazines related to the topic of work. Even when effort to reduce informal behaviors encounters resistance, it is often worth forcing. A good example of this is forbidding the use of the Internet among clerks. In one of the departments that I personally know, employees do not have access to the Internet. They may use only local network. If they need to get some information that is not available in the local network, they have to use a separate computer that provides such an access. This solution significantly reduced time wasted on surfing the Internet.
Changing structure to reduce impact
Smoking gives people an excuse to go out and spend some time chatting. Smokers usually go out multiple times during a day. The time spent to arrive to a location where smoking is allowed, can actually be bigger than the actual time spent on smoking. One of possible solutions is to provide a special room for smokers in the building. Other problem in companies is usually a need to go out to handle one’s private tasks. For some people it is necessary to make a break during their work time. Such behavior is in conflict with a need to check if somebody is spending enough time working. Some companies decide to introduce a flexible form of working. In such an approach an employee is not expected to show up in a company at determined hours, but rather to spend 40 hours a week on average working on his computer.
Thanks to the modern technology it is rather easy to monitor the time spent on one’s computer. Flexible form of work is becoming more and more popular these days.
A common need is to have fun during the work. In all companies I worked for, people exchanged jokes with e-mails. A popular approach in companies is to print several short comics and put them on a wall, usually in the kitchen or in other place where people spend their free time. Employees who read jokes and watch comics while waiting for their coffee will be more likely to be bored with jokes exchanged via e-mails. Humor also makes the atmosphere more relaxing and pleasurable.
Using behavior to the advantage of your company
Instead of fighting against natural needs of their employees, some companies decide to use such ones in their favor. One example would be to use a natural tendency to build relations and to make regular trainings in small groups. Such trainings not only allow people to increase their skills, but also to do something different from their day to day work and to get to know new people and make friends with some of them.
In the area of programming, a common way of reframing tests of applications is to introduce a form of a game. Two groups of people that work on creating different applications try to find bugs in their opponents’ application. The group which finds more of them, wins the game and gets some gratification.
Some companies that require high level of creativity from their employees decided to allow playing games during work. For example, a department of Google Company provides a billiard table for their employees, since it is believed that motion and games stimulate the mind.
Informal behaviors in companies have always existed and will exist forever since our work is a part of our lives. Only few employees will want to exchange full 8 hours a day for a good salary. Others will prefer to earn a little less, but have a fulfilling job in terms of relations and fun that they get out of it. Instead of fighting against our natural needs, it is often better to use them in a creative way to redefine work as a form of game or as a place where social networks are built and new friendships made.