Think back to your early career, when your day wasn’t booked by meetings and appointments and performance reviews. You probably spent a lot of time not knowing what to do with yourself.
Millions of employees fall prey to workplace idleness. And it’s not their fault – far from laziness or incompetence, the causes of workplace idleness are usually ingrained in the fundamental systems which underlie office norms and politics.
Again – remember your early days, when you were working your way up the ladder. If you’re anything like most people, you’d have to be physically threatened before admitting to your superior that you had ‘nothing to do.’
Now that you’re the boss, you see the error of your ways. Idleness is costing an estimated 100 billion dollars a year for US companies. So how can you put an end to it?
Step 1: Identify the root cause.
‘If I had to describe my 16 years of corporate work with one phrase, it would be ‘pretending to add value.’ – Scott Adams
Despite anecdotes to the contrary, studies show that workers genuinely dislike having nothing to do – which is why many people will drastically slow their work output to satisfy a gap in their schedule. Most workers thrive on productivity, accomplishment, and recognition, and will go to great lengths – even so far as creating unnecessary work – in order to avoid a feeling of purposeless.
The facts are clear: idle time represents a significant and harmful disruption to an employee’s sense of self-worth and professional value. But if not out of laziness, what is it that’s keeping employees from reaching out to managers?
More often than not, employees who have ‘nothing to do’ are thought of as useless. Instead of rewarding them for finishing their work ahead of schedule, we wonder why they’re always killing time – what’s their purpose? Do we even need them? We may conclude that their position is redundant.
Moreover, whenever employees ask for more work, they risk getting over-burdened. And when made to choose between being under-worked (unsatisfying) or over-worked (unbearable), most will opt for the former.
So who’s at fault? A combination of factors, most of which boil down to a manager’s lack of communication and ambiguous expectations.
Step 2: Combat idleness with clarity, transparency, and communication.
Every task should come with some form of timeline, no matter how vague or tentative. If an employee finishes ahead of schedule, they should feel empowered to share their accomplishment – not secretly surf Facebook for hours before submitting their work at the agreed-upon hour.
Try this: instead of encouraging a climate of secrecy, offer ‘downtime’ as a reward for work completed ahead of schedule. Go ahead – check your Instagram! Update your Facebook! You earned it!
Sound crazy? Research shows that by setting clear expectations, requiring communication, and rewarding hard work, you’re actively strengthening your employee-manager relationships. Workers will feel trusted and appreciated and they’ll no longer avoid finishing a task.
On the flip side, you’ll have a constantly updated roster of which members of your team are available to jump on the next project or fill in when someone is sick or busy. Yes, they’ll get their earned downtime – but they’ll still be on the clock and readily available for their next assignment.
Step 3: As a bonus, invest in ‘downtime space.’
Some companies take downtime a step further. These businesses create specific spaces for employees to blow off steam between projects or when awaiting feedback. Think something along the lines of a designated ‘rec room’ with comfortable couches and a Ping-Pong table.
Ideally, your employees will want to hang out here. The more motivated they are, the more efficiently they’ll work and the faster they’ll be available to take over a new task. Best of all, studies show that employees who finish their work quicker generate the same quality work as those who stretch the same work over hours.
If you can’t spare a designated room, you can always offer virtual downtime, when employees are free to do what they want online. The downside? You won’t have a visual cue to notify you when people are finished their work. In this case, you’ll need to make sure that employees tell you when taking downtime. Otherwise, the same rules apply.
It comes down to this: it’s not that you’re hiring the wrong workers, it’s that you’re not providing them with the right opportunities. Although exceptions certainly exist, idleness is rarely an inherent trait – more often than not, it’s a product of an unsatisfactory management situation.
But a little effort can go a long way. Make your employees feel valued and empowered to share their accomplishments, and you’ll be rewarded with faster workers and a more fulfilled workforce.
Best of all, employee retention will significantly increase as your workers feel entitled to speak openly with managers about their workflow and sense of purpose. And it won’t hurt your Glassdoor reviews, either.
We know a lot about hiring the right people for the right job, and we’d love to share our insights with you. Let’s grow your team together – get in touch to start the conversation.