Idle time causes employees to work more slowly

January 19, 2018

Researchers have found that having too much time can cause employees to work more slowly in order to avoid boredom.

UT management professor Andrew Brodsky, along with Harvard business professor Teresa Amabile, studied the effect on an employee not having enough work to fill their time, causing a period of “idle time.”

0119_ChanningMiller_idle
Illustration credit: Channing Miller, The Daily Texan

The researchers define idle time as time spent not working due to reasons outside of the employee’s control, such as waiting for customers or clients, Brodsky said. Idle time is distinct from procrastination or taking a scheduled break. As part of the study, the researchers conducted an online survey and found that 78.1 percent of respondents reported experiencing idle time, and 21.7 percent reported that they experienced idle time every day.

“If you’re in a role where your job is interdependent on others, (such as) a consultant, banker or accountant who needs clients … or you’re a restaurant server who needs to wait for customers to actually come in to have work, those more interdependent jobs are more likely to lead to experiences of idle time,” Brodsky said.

The paper cites previous research that boredom is unpleasant, and the researchers predicted that employees will try to stretch out their work to avoid boredom if they expect to experience idle time afterwards.

“People don’t like sitting around doing nothing,” Brodsky said. “Human beings have an ideal level of stimulation. You don’t want to be overstimulated because that can create stress and burnout, but on the same side you don’t want to be under-stimulated, you need something to do.”

In order to test this hypothesis, the researchers gave participants two tasks of typing sentences. While some of the participants were allowed to immediately start the second task after completing the first, other participants were told they would have 20 minutes to complete the task and would not be allowed to continue until the 20 minutes passed by.

The researchers discovered that the participants who expected idle time after their task was completed stretched out their work more as the idle time got closer. They called this the “deadtime” effect, in contrast to the deadline effect where employees tend to work faster as a deadline approaches.

Employees may also stretch out their work because a manager or supervisor expects them to be busy, or at least appear busy, all the time, Brodsky said. He added that a study published in 2003 by Karen Chinander and Maurice Schweitzer showed that, when people evaluate two workers who had done similar tasks but were told that one worker spent twice as long on their task, participants more favorably evaluated the person that worked longer.

“This is interesting because the better employee is the one who completes the work more productively and more quickly and has a better outcome, but managers take into their evaluation how much they’re seeing the employee working,” Brodsky said. “We think this also is likely going to drive people’s behavior when they expect idle time (because) they don’t want to be seen as being idle because they know they might get punished for it.”

UT management professor Ethan Burris, who studies improving conversations between employees and supervisors, said employees who are being watched by a manager are less likely to try to do their task differently and look for more efficient methods because it reduces the amount of idle time they would experience.

“If … you’re monitored by how much time you spend on a particular task, it can end up reinforcing and rewarding people to spend more time on a task so they always seem busy,” said Burris, who was not involved in the study.

One solution the researchers offer to avoid this work-stretching effect is by managers not forcing employees to work continuously, Amabile said.

“Managers should be aware that their employees may be spending more time idle than is obvious, and may be working more slowly than they should, in order to avoid idle time,” she said. “The solution isn’t to monitor employees more closely, because micromanagement like that can have a host of negative effects.”

Another way to combat this effect is to make downtime less boring by allowing employees to do leisure activities, such as checking the internet. The researchers conducted another study in which some participants were allowed to use the internet after they were done with a task, and these participants completed their tasks more quickly.

“We know from extensive research that breaks can rejuvenate people and are actually good for workers, and what we’re arguing is that idle time has these negative effects,” Brodsky said. “Trying to turn idle time into a more permissible break where employees aren’t expected to be engaging in work might have positive outcomes.”

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