I see this problem pop up many times on forums. Every week it seems there’s someone out there who has little to do at their job. I read how they spend the day watching movies at their desk, how they ask for more work to be assigned, and how frustrating it is to have no responsibilities at their job. People dream for this situation, but I don’t know why—I imagine these people haven’t had a job with little or no responsibility. It’s a miserable experience. You feel useless and alone; you fear your job is unimportant and thus your employment a temporary existence. You could be fired at any moment when your managers realize you’re the “do-nothing” employee. Having little to do at work is not a dream situation. It’s a nightmare that no one should have to endure for sustained periods.
The remedies sought out by employees
Underutilized employees are often caught between a rock and a hard place. If you bring your lack of work to the attention of your manager, that fear of losing your job kicks in. Many can overcome this hurdle—and that’s good—but it often doesn’t result in much. I’ve seen numerous cases where an employee has told their manager, “I need more work.” The manager then promises to find another project to assign out. I’ve been that employee before, asking to be assigned more. It’s a painful but necessary ask, but many times it doesn’t result in any new work—only the promise of new work.
When the direct ask fails to yield significant results, employees are often advised to enroll in training, whether it’s learning a new skill or building on existing competencies. Again, I’ve been that employee. I once spent an entire month learning ReactJS because I had no major projects to work on. To a degree, there is nothing wrong with this. Work should ebb and flow with a natural rhythm so that no one employee is overworked and burnt out. And training is a valid substitute for that time. As a manager, I encourage my employees to engage in training when there are no huge outstanding priorities. It’s when the training starts to appear like that employee’s only duty is where trouble starts to brew.
The final remedy most employees are given is to drum up their own work. They’re told to look for systems, processes, and backlogs to tackle. This is a totally valid remedy, and one that demonstrates that the employee is a keeper. Anyone who proactively and intelligently seeks out work like this during a slow period is a solid thinker. To me it shows creativity and entrepreneurial spirit. Sadly, many of these employees are not given much room to shine, which is why they’re finding their own work in the first place. Prolonged periods of proactive work hunting within an organization is stressful and can easily reach a burn out level.
The obvious culprit: middle management
Everyone likes to blame management—especially middle management—for organizational bottlenecks.
But middle management is very much necessary in directing organizational units. There’s no such thing as bad middle management—just bad management.
When employees complain of having nothing to do, it’s because management hasn’t given them anything to do. But it’s not as simple as that. Managers are delegated work, too. They don’t snap their fingers and create a backlog of tickets or a product roadmap. These things develop from the top-down or from other teams or from third-parties, like customers.
The real culprit: the organization
Lack of work is an organizational problem. It’s a symptom of a communication breakdown, starting from the top of the chain and flowing down to the employee. An organization has a mission driven by products and services, and it’s those products and services that require the employment of individuals, and those individuals have work to make sure the products and services are operating correctly. When there is no work, then there’s no point for the organization to exist.
In my mind, the biggest stress falls on those middle managers. We all know middle management gets pummeled from the top and the bottom, but it’s even worse in the “no work” situation. Middle managers aren’t receiving the direction they need from their manager, and without that direction, they’re at a loss as to what to delegate.
How managers can find work for their employees
The lack of direction created by a dysfunctional organization is what I view as the cause of the “do nothing” employee. The direct manager is usually not the one at fault—trust me, no manager is itching to keep work back from their directs. And as a manager, I’ve found myself stuck in the mud many times.
Here’s how I’ve addressed work droughts:
- Understand the organization’s goals: A clear understanding of the organization’s goals, mission, and vision will empower you to identify gaps within your unit. Perhaps you run the accounting department and know your organization wants to reduce aging receivables by five days. As the accounting manager, you can identify solutions to accomplish this, such as a new customer notification system for late payments.
- Put training to use: Training is essential for employees, but I view training as wasteful if newfound skills aren’t put to use. Assign employees projects that takes learning and applies it to real problems within your unit. Or, if those problems are hard to come by, have employees rebuild or reconfigure existing tools and processes using their new skills.
- Make time for fun projects: Numerous startups and tech companies allow employees to spend a certain percentage of their office time on “fun” projects. Give your employees permissions to roam free with some of their work—it doesn’t even need to be directly related to your organizational unit’s scope.
- Hold brainstorming sessions: Employees are full of good ideas. The problem is, they often aren’t asked about those ideas. Brainstorming sessions can create a safe environment that will encourage team members to share new concepts, identify useful experiments, and uncover interesting problems. These ideas can lead to projects that everyone will be excited to work on.
- Seek direction from the top: Just like “do nothing” employees are told to ask their managers for work, you should do the same with your manager. Have a one-on-one with your manager and ask what your unit’s priorities should be focused on.
- Develop a backlog: A backlog is a list of projects and tasks that didn’t make the cut for a previous work schedule. When you hit the dreaded work drought, a healthy backlog will give you ample items to choose from to delegate out to your team.