Back to all posts
Hannah Taylor

What is Idle Time & What to Do About It

Concerned about the impact of idle time on your project deadlines? Let's explore the causes of idle time and what to do about it.

In the context of the workplace, idle time has a significant influence on team productivity and a business’s bottom line. It’s important to keep idle time as low as possible - but to do so, you need to know what is causing idle time in your organization.

In this article, that's exactly what we're exploring. So, let's stuck in to the causes of idle time, how to reduce idle time, and tips for improving your team's overall productivity.

What is idle time?

Idle time, also known as wait time, refers to periods of time when employees are not being productive despite being available for work. ‘Idle time’ is also used in manufacturing to describe the time when a machine is online without producing any valuable output.

Today, we’re focusing on employee idle time. To help clarify how this differs from manufacturing idle time, let’s break down what machine idle time means versus human idle time.

Idle time for machines

Imagine a common office printer. It’s designed for one task: printing. When it’s not in use, a printer waits for a document to print. This means it’s idle, as it’s available yet inactive.

In manufacturing or construction, machines wracking up too much idle time can point toward inefficiencies, breakdowns, unplanned outages, or even a breakdown of synchronization within the production line. As equipment and machinery typically perform one specific task — such as printing — they can’t be utilized for other processes. Too much idle time can impact a company’s productivity due to missed production opportunities.

Idle time for employees

Idle time occurs when an employee is available but unable to begin their next task. Common examples you’ve likely experienced include waiting for approvals or for your internet connection to return.

Tracking and minimizing idle time is important because too much idle time sabotages productivity. And as employees are paid for their time, the way this time is used is of great importance. When people are held up and unable to progress tasks because they are waiting on something, this time is effectively wasted.

What is the difference between idle time and downtime?

Idle time and downtime are often conflated, but they’re not the same thing. Let’s break it down.

  • Idle time is the time employees spend being unproductive because they’re waiting for the input required for them to begin their next task.
  • Downtime refers to any time when an employee is not actively engaged in a work-related activity.

These definitions are similar, but there’s one key difference: the reason workers are being unproductive. While idle employees can't continue their work because they're waiting for input, employees experiencing downtime should be able to engage with work but aren’t.

Downtime can be planned, with examples including government-mandated employee break times, time outside their contracted hours, and machine downtime caused by scheduled maintenance. But it is unplanned downtime, covering impromptu breaks, employee strikes, machine failure, and underutilization, that can lead to lost productivity when managed poorly.

Neither downtime nor idle time is inherently bad. You can't realistically plan for people to work at 100% capacity all of the time (80% is a much more feasible utilization goal). Likewise, project plans and workflows don't always progress perfectly - even when contingencies are in place and risks are being proactively managed.

This means that both idle time and downtime are inevitable, to a point. What’s important is how they’re managed.

What causes idle time?

Idle time can be split into ‘normal’ idle time and ‘abnormal’ idle time, depending on what has caused it. Normal idle time refers to anything caused by business practices, while abnormal idle time refers to delays triggered by factors beyond management’s control, such as faulty equipment, natural disasters, or power outages. Here are six common causes of idle time.


Overutilization is a common issue in service businesses that want to remain lean, but what happens when there is too little work to go around?

When an employee is on the clock, but there are no jobs for them to pick up, they accrue idle time. Underutilization is commonly caused by poor resource management, either because the workload has been unequally distributed between workers or the team has more hands on deck than is necessitated by the workload.

Building a team with the right number of people to effectively manage a department’s workload can be challenging for leaders when the workload fluctuates with demand, but a balance must be found to limit idle time.

Workflow inefficiencies

A workflow inefficiency is when there is dead time between one business process ending and the next starting. Think of it like a relay race; a runner can’t move until their teammate has handed over the baton.

When your employees regularly must wait for the approvals, briefs, or materials required to start their work, your business is likely struggling with workflow inefficiencies. These are typically caused by poor planning and operational issues.

Worker inefficiencies

Worker inefficiency is a common cause of idle time. That being said, people are not machines. Have you ever jumped to conclusions about why someone was unproductive? Maybe you thought they were lazy, procrastinating, or didn’t care.

The truth is that most worker inefficiencies are caused by:

  • New employees: New workers will inevitably be slower than their experienced counterparts as they get up to speed with your team’s processes and the business’s culture.
  • Burnt-out employees: Overworking or failing to take breaks can lead to lower productivity in the long run as employees burn out and lose motivation.
  • Poor resource planning: If an employee is allotted two days to complete a task but takes three days, the next person in the chain will start their work a day later than planned. Unless they can be assigned another task, they will begin accruing idle time. This is why time management in the workplace is so important.

Poor onboarding processes

Did you know that only 12% of employees strongly agree their organization does a great job of onboarding new employees? As mentioned earlier, you can expect new employees to experience more idle time than average during their initial adjustment period. However, this can be exacerbated by poor onboarding processes.

Rushing employee onboarding or, worse, having no onboarding process leaves new starters feeling unsupported. It’s no surprise that this impacts business productivity as employees who aren’t onboarding properly take longer to familiarize themselves with company processes.

Unexpected personal events or issues

From illness to last-minute childcare needs, there are dozens of reasons why employees may be unexpectedly absent. As others await their return, the idle time clock begins ticking. While unplanned events are unpredictable by nature, their impact on idle time can be mitigated with contingency plans and backups.

Technological issues

Just as people get sick, machines break down. When a piece of technology is unexpectedly offline, task completion is delayed, and idle time begins.

For example, if an office worker’s computer stops working or they lose access to WiFi, they’ll find themselves unexpectedly experiencing idle time. Likewise, team leaders can be incapacitated when their tools are undergoing maintenance.

How to minimize idle time

Idle time is unavoidable to a point, but that doesn’t mean ‘normal’ idle time can’t be reduced. Now that we understand the causes of idle time, let’s explore how you can reduce idle time and boost productive work.

Define what idle time means

Which causes a greater problem for your team: normal idle time or abnormal idle time? What is an acceptable amount of idle time for a worker to experience? What would be considered too much idle time?

It’s unrealistic to expect employees to reduce time spent waiting to zero, and downtime can be good for employees’ health, so it’s critical you have a benchmark. These are important questions to answer before you can begin cracking down on inefficiencies and optimizing your processes. 

Introduce time tracking & resourcing

You can’t improve processes based on guesswork. That’s why you need to track idle time.

By implementing project time tracking and using resource management tools, you can gather data that reveals what your employees are working on, when, and for how long. For example, you can see when idle time is causing bottlenecks or when one team member is shouldering more burden than others.

However, gathering this kind of data can make employees feel like you don’t trust them. So, It’s extremely important you understand how to introduce time tracking tactfully. Make sure to highlight that its purpose is to:

  • Distribute work more evenly
  • Improve processes by identifying inefficiencies
  • Support better resource management
  • Ensure everyone gets enough downtime, protecting mental health
  • Plan better for the future
  • Encourage productive work

Improve communication

Serious operational issues often stem from breakdowns in communication, from delays caused by inter-departmental misalignments about responsibilities to team members not speaking up when they have bandwidth available.

A huge issue businesses face is that bottlenecks are flagged too late, causing sequential delays. For example, if person B can’t start website development until person A writes the copy, and person A misses their deadline, person B will find themselves idle.

This is where resource management for projects comes back into play. Project management tools clarify task assignments, centralize relevant project information, reveal who is underutilized, and flag potential bottlenecks before they trigger a chain reaction and cause further delays.

Implementing Agile tactics can also improve communication lines. For example, daily stand-ups will ensure potential roadblocks are raised early, empowering your team to plan around delays and reduce idle time. 

Implement effective management techniques

Improving processes will mean something different to every team, but here are some ideas to help you streamline your workflows and remove inefficiencies:

  • Eliminate unnecessary administrative tasks such as pre-approvals 
  • Remove unnecessary meetings, such as weekly catch-ups and pre-meeting meetings
  • Create standard operating procedures for regularly completed tasks, including best practices and instructions
  • Devise backup plans for working around unexpected personal events
  • Invest in resource management, communication, and project management tools that support proper planning
  • Implement time tracking to better track and manage idle time
  • Trial Agile practices that allow teams to flex around unforeseen changes

Invest in better training and onboarding

By taking the time to create an effective onboarding process that covers best practices, SOPs, and key performance indicators, you can set your team up for success. Remember that when managers take an active role in onboarding, employees are 3.4 times as likely to strongly agree their onboarding process was exceptional.

And by investing in ongoing training and development programs, you can ensure your team remains at the top of their game.

How to use idle time

When things don’t go to plan and work drops out of people’s diaries, the worst thing they can do is sit around and do nothing. Here’s how to help your team make the most of their idle time.

Continually learn

Responsibility for personal development doesn’t sit squarely on the shoulders of management. Rather than pretending to be busy, employees can use their idle time to learn something new or advance their existing skills, such as through online classes, certification courses, or mentoring.

Support colleagues

Encourage your team to ask themselves, could any of my colleagues benefit from my help? The difference between humans and machines is that humans are flexible and can complete a wide variety of tasks. For example, is there an overutilized colleague they can help out? Or is there admin work they can take off someone’s plate? 

Plan for the future

Employees can use their idle time to get a head start on upcoming tasks, such as setting up documents, completing research, or reading briefs. This will help reduce the impact of idle time on timelines and resourcing.

Wrapping it up: managing your most valuable resource

Time will always be your most valuable resource because when it’s gone, it’s gone forever. So, don’t leave your resource management to guesswork. With Runn, you can reduce your team’s idle time by optimizing your resource management, implementing effective workflows, and spotting inefficiencies before they become problems.

Whether your team is steaming ahead on projects or taking the time to recharge their batteries, plan, track, and schedule it all with Runn.

Enjoy the post? Sign up for the latest strategies, stories and product updates.

You might also like

Try Runn today for free!

Join over 10k users worldwide.
Start scheduling in less than 10 minutes.
No credit card needed