Organizations are often concerned that their employees have too much to do in too little time. However, the opposite situation—idle time—is rarely given attention. This term is used to describe segments of time at work in which employees are involuntarily unable to proceed with their work tasks. This can be due to slow periods in customer service jobs, technical problems, a lack of necessary information to proceed with a project, or managers inefficiently distributing work, among other reasons.
Consequences of Non-productive Time at Work
Researchers conducted a series of studies to examine the frequency and length of idle time, and then determine its impact on work pace or speed. They found that almost 80% of U.S. workers experienced idle time, with just over 20% reporting they experienced it every day. For those that experienced idle time, they reported an average of 2 hours and 45 minutes of idle time within the past five workdays. Based on this information and U.S. Census data, this approximates to 7.4 billion hours of idle time in the U.S. each year, and $100 billion paid for idle time.
The authors then examined the impact of non-productive time on work behaviour, specifically the pacing of work. Although workers tend to follow a pacing style based on the “deadline effect,” in which the work pace is picked up as a deadline approaches, the opposite effect was expected when workers anticipated free time. The researchers termed this the “deadtime effect” to describe that when people expect free time before a deadline, they slow their work pace as the deadline gets closer. This slowing of pace is called work stretching.