Research: Idle time at work is costing U.S. businesses up to $100 billion a year

When managers and employees decide to keep themselves busy for the sake of appearance, it’s not just wasting a company’s time, it’s wasting their money too.

A new study from Harvard Business School has calculated that idle time can cost employers an estimated $100 billion in wages per year. And it’s likely your workplace is one of them. Researchers Teresa Amabile and Andrew Brodsky took a nationally representative sample of U.S. workers across 29 occupations — including lawyers, managers, and people in the armed services — and found that 78% of employees reported experiencing some kind of idle time.

Research: Employees don’t have enough to do

The eye-popping number shows us that many companies could be leaving money on the table when they fail to make sure their workers are able to make the most out of their workday. Idle time was defined as a phenomenon where “employees do not have enough work to fill their time and are left with hours of meaningless idle time each week,” as opposed to a voluntary behavior like laziness or procrastination.

In some cases, it’s not the fault of the employees that they are twiddling their thumbs. The fault lies with organizational inefficiencies like having employees be available just in case they are needed, researchers found. These poorly designed workdays do not use employees to their best capacity.

When workers lollygag, there’s a “deadtime effect”

Employees are savvy to managers’ poor scheduling, and will adjust their productivity accordingly when they knew there was going to be idle time in their workday. The study found that when workers anticipated idle time following a task, their work pace would decline and their task completion time increased. The researchers called this a “deadtime effect.”

The researchers theorize that the deadtime effect can infect every part of your day. “If workers were to face an undesirable subsequent task, such as making cold calls or dealing with a customer complaint, they might slow down on a current task to postpone or reduce the amount of time available for the undesirable task,” the study states. “It is possible that if an employee’s planned after-work activities are perceived as undesirable (e.g., paying bills or house cleaning), that employee may work very slowly during the day and extend [their] work well beyond normal work hours.”

To combat the deadtime effect, researchers gave participants a carrot to finish more quickly and told participants in one experiment that they could surf the internet if they finished a task early. Those finished more quickly without making more mistakes.

Being busy at work is not the same as doing work

We know that there’s an expectation of busyness at work. No one wants to be seen as lazy. That’s the perception the researchers want us to challenge: “If organizations were to openly acknowledge and sanction idle time as an unavoidable part of the work, for which employees would not be evaluated negatively, then the stigma associated with being idle could be reduced,” they concluded.

The findings should serve as a warning to managers that how you pace your assignments can be just as important to your bottom-line as what you assign your subordinates. “Managers should evaluate employees based on outcomes rather than hours spent working or seeming to work,” Brodsky advised.