How Much is Worker Idle Time Costing You?

I recently read in the Wall Street Journal that workers’ idle time — the time workers spend not being productive — is costing U.S. employers $100 billion per year.

(This doesn’t include needless meetings, which I’d guess are costing another $100 billion, but that’s just me.)

Some examples of idle time can include chatting around the water cooler, taking an extra 10 minutes at lunch, or checking social media online or a mobile phone. How much time do you think can be wasted per day or per week at a company? It varies from person to person, company to company, of course. Some people will be very diligent and waste almost no time, while others will screw around whenever they have a chance.

Mobile phones are partly responsible for workers' idle timeFor example, one discovery we made when we implemented objective measurement at my old employer is that there was a 20 percent idle time on the factory floor. That’s people having conversations, taking longer for breaks and lunches, or having broken down machines and waiting around for repairs. We basically lost a single day of productivity every week with all the idle time, and that was just on the factory floor. By reducing idle time, the increased productivity helped us reduce overhead, we didn’t need to hire as many people, and we didn’t need as much overtime.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that everyone who is idle is goofing around. According to the study, idle time also includes “periods of involuntary downtime” in which a person can’t work. That can include waiting for customers (like a fast food worker at 3:00 pm), someone whose manager has inefficiently assigned work, or a technical malfunction, like a machine breakdown or a printer jam.

The researchers, Andrew Brodsky (U of Texas at Austin’s McCombs School of Business) and Teresa Amabile (Harvard Business School), also found that some employees will reward themselves with a bit of leisure/personal time, such as surfing the Internet after completing a task. It seems like a fair trade, but those people actually slowed down their work pace and increased their completion time, which negated any benefits. (You can read the entire study here.)

Similarly, when people have a deadline, they will often start slowly and then speed up as the deadline draws closer, so deadlines don’t necessarily increase efficiency either.

Basically, idle time is seen as a negative, even if it’s beyond the employee’s control. So some employees may purposely slow down and increase the time it takes to complete a task just so they don’t finish “early.”

While I never wanted people to sit and stare at the clock for the last 10 minutes of the day with nothing to do, neither did I want them to slow down their productivity just to fill up that last 10 minutes. But according to this report, that’s the kind of thing that happens in companies where they don’t objectively measure productivity.

As a result, most managers are not really aware of how much idle time an employee actually has. After all, a 75 minute task looks just like a 60 minute task if you just walk past their desk once or twice a day, and that missing 15 minutes is not only invisible, it doesn’t even show up unless you’re measuring productivity to begin with.

Measuring Productivity and Idle Time

Let’s say we have four people performing the same function — making widgets, entering orders, writing reports, etc. What you’ll often find is that one or two of the four will outperform the others by a factor of 2-to-1 or more.

So if you’re measuring how many orders are being entered and by whom, you’ll be able to determine who is entering more than anybody else, and it gives you an opportunity to find out why. Generally speaking, when it’s the very same task done by four different people, it’s not a system issue, it’s an individual performance issue.

This means you have a few options:

  1. Train everyone to work as quickly and efficiently as person #1, the most efficient person on the team.
  2. Give special training to person #4 and try to bring them up to the level of #2 or #3.
  3. Cut person #4, the least efficient person.

With this last option, it may seem like everyone has to work much faster and harder, but in actuality, you only need to get person #2 and #3 to step up their own game, because person #1 has already set the bar for what’s considered top efficiency.

In many cases, cutting the people who have the most idle time will end up improving efficiency and productivity overall, as well as reducing overhead. But you can’t do that just based on anecdotes and annual reviews; you need data from a measurement system that objectively tracks everyone’s work and efforts.

As unemployment continues to drop in the U.S., it’s getting harder and harder to hire good people, because fewer people are available to work. But if you can help the people you currently have to be more productive, you don’t need to add more people. It all begins with cutting out idle time and providing training and/or new opportunities for the people who aren’t cutting the mustard.

I’ve been a manufacturing executive, as well as a sales and marketing professional for a few decades. Now I help companies turn around their own business. If you would like more information, please visit my website and connect with me on Twitter or LinkedIn.

Photo credit: Go Digital (Flickr, Creative Commons 2.0)

Author: David Marshall
I’ve been a manufacturing executive, as well as a sales and marketing professional, for a few decades. Now I help companies turn around their own business. If you would like more information, please visit my website and connect with me on Twitter or LinkedIn.