Why is idle time so important?
When reviewing Workforce Intelligence data, it is quite normal for companies to be shocked by the time spent in what would be considered as non-production activity. The main contributor to all this non-production time is “idle time." It is easy to get excited, concerned, and jump to fix this immediately with the thought that employees are just choosing not to work. The cost of idle time is staggering. Based on a Harvard Business School paper, The downside of downtime: The prevalence and work pacing consequences of idle time at work, idle time it is costing American companies $100 billion per year. This number is astounding, but is in line with what is seen across industries within Workforce Intelligence.
Workforce Intelligence measures idle time as no keyboard or mouse activity registered for a period of over 60 seconds (recommended setting). This setting is configurable and should be adjusted depending on the type of work the employees are doing. Additionally, it is recommended that off computer codes are utilized in order to separate planned idle time - like breaks, lunch, meetings, and training - from unplanned idle time.
Considerations when doing an idle analysis
When looking at the initial dashboards displaying the idle results, it is very easy to be shocked and want to fix the situation immediately. It is not uncommon for a Backoffice organization to see 30-40% idle time before making any improvements. The best thing an analyst can do is not blame the employees. Obviously, before looking at the data, the qualitive results indicated that everyone was extremely busy and there was limited capacity. This can be hard for analysts and management to reconcile as the data tells a different story.
According to Parkinson's law, work expands to fill the time allotted. Therefore, if someone has a week to complete 10 work tasks, then they will find a way to fill the week with those 10 tasks, regardless of how long it actually takes to complete the tasks. Try to understand how work is distributed to employees and expectations are set. Truly understanding the amount of time it should take to complete tasks will allow you to better assess the true root cause of excessive idle time.
In addition to understanding where there is too much idle time, analysts should also look for instances where there is too little idle time. When idle time is below 20%, that could be a good indicator that an employee has a high potential for burnout. They are typically viewed as "rock stars", or high performers, because of their ability to get a lot of work completed. What ends up happening is that the employee will work through lunches and breaks, but create their own idle moments that are far less than a typical lunch or break. This is especially true with remote employees, who can set their own working schedule. But constant working with little or no time to recharge is not sustainable, and puts the employee at risk of more extended, unplanned absences. According to a 2019 WHO study, depression and anxiety caused by the workplace costs the global economy more than $1 trillion annually in lost productivity.
Well-managed idle time
Setting expectations for realistic idle time is important. The table below illustrates how to set proper expectations of what percentage of idle time should be expected. The data used are based on a typical work environment that operates from 8 am to 5 pm, with 1 hour for lunch, two 15 minute breaks, and another hour allocated to other planned idle events, like meetings, training sessions, etc.
|Total Shift Time (8a-5p)||9|
|Breaks (2 @ 15 min)||0.5|
|Total Planned Idle||2.5|
|% Idle Time||28%|
Potential causes of unplanned idle time
There can be many causes of idle time in the workplace. Understanding and setting proper expectations of what is acceptable will further enhance any idle time analysis. Some common examples of unplanned idle time include:
- Work pacing - Employees will naturally stretch out work tasks to fill the time allotted to complete them.
- Burnout - Employees who work through scheduled breaks do not have time to recharge and will often create their own breaks.
- No clear schedule - If an employee's day is not structured, they may not know when to really take breaks, causing them to create their own breaks or even take extended breaks.
- Too many meetings - Sometimes, the planned idle time is the culprit. Organizations that schedule too many meetings or training sessions can leave their employees with little time to complete their set production tasks.
- Mismanagement or abuse of remote schedules - There can be occurrences of the employee, or even the supervisor, not adhering to the required schedule. Typically this is the exception, but this will manifest itself with other metrics like number of work items completed.
- Cherry picking - When employees are able to choose their own work tasks, sometimes cherry picking can occur. This is when an employee deliberately takes the easiest work and leaves the more complicated work for other team members. Their work-completed metrics will look really good, but they will typically show higher than average idle time.
Small changes can make a huge impact
When looking for opportunities to improve, don't try to solve the entire idle time problem at once. Even just a small improvement of 1% can have a huge impact. For an organization of 200 employees, that is an additional 2 full time employees' worth of added capacity, without hiring anyone new.
Additional things to think about
The idle time metric in Workforce Intelligence is just an indicator of where there could be a potential issue of lost time. It is important to not only understand the individual's idle time, but what their performance is relative to others who are performing the same work. Additionally, in order to truly understand the cause of idle time, it is recommended to have discussions with the employees. Often, they will know the root cause and may even have a proposed solution. For example, one client of Workforce Intelligence discovered that one of their teams was idle for over an hour each morning. After discussions with their team, they discovered the team could not start their day until the mail arrived for processing. The company was able to adjust their mail delivery schedule so that this team could hit the ground running each day.
- Brodsky, Andrew, and Teresa M. Amabile. "The Downside of Downtime: The Prevalence and Work Pacing Consequences of Idle Time at Work." (pdf) Journal of Applied Psychology 103, no. 5 (May 2018): 496–512.
- Pega, "Demystifying the Desktop", (September 2018), Retrieved from https://www.pega.com/system/files/resources/2019-01/demystifying-the-desktop.pdf
- Wikipedia contributors. (2020, September 29). Parkinson's law. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved October 21, 2020, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Parkinson%27s_law&oldid=980912245
- Word Health Organization, Mental Health In the Workplace. World Health Organization Website. Retrieved October 21, 2020, from https://www.who.int/mental_health/in_the_workplace/en/