How to Reduce Idle Time in Your Business

people sitting on chair in front of table while holding pens during daytime

As a manager, a supervisor, or another leader within your organization, you’ve probably noticed idle employees. During idle time, your employees aren’t really doing anything productive; they might be talking to other employees, reading personal emails, or pointlessly meandering around the workplace, looking for something to do.

We don’t need to tell you that idle time isn’t good for your business. Your employees are still making money, costing the business resources, but they aren’t contributing anything. Now, obviously, some idle time is to be expected, but there’s a point where it becomes a massive problem.

So, what steps can you take to proactively reduce idle time in your business?

Why Employees Are Idle

The best way to start is to figure out why your employees are idle.

These are some of the most common root causes of idle time within a business:

  • Role/responsibility ambiguity. Some employees are only idle if they have role or responsibility ambiguity; in other words, they aren’t sure what they’re supposed to do. You can call this the “waiting for instructions” problem. They may have completed a recent assignment, and they may have nothing else to do, so they have no real choice but to sit and wait for someone to tell them what to do next.
  • Inadequate demand. It could also be a demand problem. If you have a team of mechanics working on vehicle maintenance and repairs, but there literally aren’t enough new cars or customers to keep those mechanics busy, some of your mechanics are naturally going to be idle.
  • Workflow problems. Sometimes, idle employees are a direct result of workflow issues. For example, let’s say there’s a major bottleneck in the workflow that causes work to accumulate and then explode for the next person in the chain. They may be idle for hours at a time, then unexpectedly slammed with urgent assignments to complete.
  • Equipment/technology/resource problems. In today’s world of connective technology, all it takes is a single internet outage or an unexpected problem with a critical piece of software to completely disconnect the entire organization and leave everyone twiddling their thumbs.
  • Low morale/engagement. Employee engagement is crucial for effective collaboration, individual morale, and overall productivity. When employees aren’t adequately engaged and when they suffer from low morale, they’re much more likely to be idle for unjustifiable reasons.

How to Reduce Idle Time in Your Business

What actionable steps can you take to reduce idle time in your business?

  • Analyze the situation. Before you can adequately address the problem, you need to understand the problem. That’s why the first step is always to analyze the situation. How many employees are idle? How long are they typically idle? What are the reasons motivating them to be idle?
  • Clearly define tasks, objectives, and priorities. Every employee should have a clear understanding of how they function within the organization. They should know what their tasks, objectives, and priorities are. On a given day, no one should be confused about what they’re supposed to be doing; if they are, it’s a problem with leadership that needs to be addressed.
  • Experiment with new workflows. Workflow optimization can manifest in many forms, and all of them have the potential to be valuable. One of the best approaches is to experiment with new workflow options so you can determine which types of workflow changes can reduce idle time and improve productivity.
  • Always have backburner tasks. In most businesses, there are times when demand falls or when primary equipment is unavailable for use. In these scenarios, it pays to have “backburner” tasks. These are items that employees can work on when they don’t have primary responsibilities to handle. For example, you might encourage your employees to learn new skills, creatively brainstorm new ideas, or tackle simple jobs that might otherwise go unaddressed.
  • Have multiple failsafes/backups. If your primary systems or resources fail, idle time would seem inevitable. But it’s not inevitable if you have multiple failsafes and backups. For example, do you have a secondary way that employees can get access to the internet?
  • Help employees feel more engaged. Next, do whatever you can to help employees feel more engaged and more positive about their working environment. Better rewards, teambuilding events, and personal development opportunities can all help you on this front.
  • Address recurring offenders. Some employees may be excessively idle; when these individual issues arise, be sure to address them in private and take disciplinary action if necessary.

Idle time is never going to disappear entirely. And there are some contexts in which idle time is actually favorable, such as employees building bonds with one another over a round of small talk at the water cooler. But if you’re proactive in managing idle time, and you’re willing to resolve the root causes of idle time, your business will be in a much better position.