Rethink downtime at work? UT Professor’s research suggests it’s a good idea

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — In a world that seems to be getting faster and faster, idle time at work may not feel like a problem. But, according to Andrew Brodsky, an Associate Professor at the McCombs School of Business at UT Austin, it’s costing both employers and employees nationwide.

Brodsky worked with a co-author from Harvard Business School on research that found companies in the U.S. pay more than $100 billion each year for time employees spent idle. Additionally, they found that 78.1 percent of all U.S. employees experience some idle time at work, and 21.7 percent of all employees experience idle time on a daily basis.

“So we’re not talking about breaks in which you’re allowed to relax, we’re not talking about procrastination — which is the employee’s choice– it’s time where you’re at work but have nothing to do,” Brodsky explained. Their findings, which came from surveying workplace data from across the country and across several occupational categories, will soon be published in Journal of Applied Psychology.

These findings may matter for people who manage employees, like 4th generation Black’s Barbecue Pitmaster Barrett Black, who works at the Black’s location in Austin. In his line of work, all the food takes a great deal of planning and prep time. When brisket takes 12 to 15 hours to smoke and ribs take 4 to 5 hours, Black has to plan out his staffing well to make sure they meet customer needs at meal-times.

He’s created a culture where employees remain productive throughout the day, giving them breaks and more flexibility once the meal-time rush hours have ended. In fact, Black tries to hire people who remain on task and enjoy staying busy.

“There’s an old adage in the restaurant industry, if you have time to lean you have time to clean,” Black said.

Black is already practicing what Brodsky’s research shows: improving efficiency by reducing idle time. Not having a task can be very stressful for workers, who are more likely to “work-stretch,” or take longer to complete a task to fill the amount of time they’ve been given. Brodsky said previous academic research shows there are negative consequences for workers who are seen as idle, so employees may avoid letting their superiors know about this idle time.

What does Brodsky recommend as a solution to this problem of idle time?

“Actually having more open conversations about, ‘Are you busy or not busy’, and rather than punishing people for having finished their work early, actually rewarding them,” Brodsky said.

He also suggested employers have intentionally scheduled break times and times for leisure. His research found that people were less likely to take a dip in productivity if they knew they’d have a sanctioned time for leisure or idle time after they finished the task at hand.

“People hate waiting, they hate looking busy for managers particularly, if they have nothing to do,” Brodsky said. “So if you make that time desirable and make it OK to just relax during it, people are more productive, employees are happier, but they also are more available should any work come up.”

Brodsky said this problem with idle time may be fueled by the way the culture in the U.S. workforce values workers for how busy they appear as opposed to how productive they are. In his restaurant, black notes that at the end of the day, he believes the kind of productivity his workers experience is fulfilling for them.

“When they’re walking out to their car, they have some sense of accomplishment, or some sense that they contributed, rather than just standing around doing nothing,” he said.

He now plans to read more into the research on employee downtime.

“I think it’s very interesting [this is] being studied, it’s a major problem in all industries,” Black said. “If there’s a way that we can find to mutually benefit businesses and the individual who’s working, it’s a win-win.”

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