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Idle Time Vs. Downtime

There are many events that may lead to idle time or a halt in productivity. Often, it’s a simple case of scheduled breaks causing employees to be unavailable. Sometimes, it can be a complete halt in operations due to some essential process being held up. Read about the key differences between idle time and downtime and how to boost your company’s success.

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What is the difference between idle time and downtime?

One idleness definition is simply a period of time where employees are waiting to perform their key tasks. An idle time definition can also be that of a vehicle that can’t run because it’s missing a vital component. This can be a great metaphor for a company that’s being stalled in some way.

If one part of the supply chain is held up in delivery, for example, the production line will be left idle while it waits for the parts to come in. It can also be a period of time where employees are overworked and cease to be productive, referred to as “the dead-time effect” in corporate psychology.

Downtime, on the other hand, is a period of time when no workers or equipment are available to complete a task. This isn’t a matter of redirecting workflow while the idle time occurs but of complete disruption in the company’s efforts. There may be downtime because of a broken essential machine, inclement weather or power outages.

Downtime can also be the result of too many employees on scheduled breaks at the same time, leaving no available workers. This effect is much more pronounced in service industries where customer traffic tends to increase unexpectedly at times. Make sure you have effective schedule planning procedures in place to optimize required break times and prevent scheduling-related downtime.

How idle time affects the workforce

Idle time can lead to a less productive workforce and a significant loss of revenue for companies. Research suggests that over $100 billion annually is wasted on ineffective operational idle time. A study of employees in myriad occupations and industries reports that 78% of people experience idle time at their job.

You can use idle time to keep your team engaged, changing pace periodically throughout the day to boost productivity. Idle time is often hidden by multitasking, but you can actually use the natural urge to do multiple simple tasks simultaneously. Taking a time-blocking approach, you can pencil in “idle time” where employees can multitask on less intensive work. For example, call center representatives might check emails or tidy up when call volume is expected to be low. Keep in mind that neglecting planned breaks can lead to a lack of productivity, the dreaded dead-time, so you should schedule idle time as break time when appropriate.

Time blocking and other methods may encourage steady action, reducing the habit of employees slacking off when you want them working on difficult projects. Employees can also work on flextime schedules, where working hours revolve around the most productive times and employees’ personal daily activities and will change accordingly. For example, coming to work earlier than usual is acceptable, and the employee goes home early as a result. This type of routine can also lead to employee happiness, encouraging them to be autonomous and proactive in their schedule-setting.

Studies also show that employees work faster if they have near deadlines instead of idle time. Researchers have outlined the psychological processes that explain this phenomenon. According to Parkinson’s Law, employees will utilize exactly as much time as they are given for a job. If a task may take 10 minutes and they are given 30, they will most likely slow down to a proportionate rate to fill that 30 minutes. Set reasonable expectations for employees to prevent procrastination and intentional sluggishness.

The importance of downtime

While it may come as no surprise, both humans and machinery require a sufficient amount of downtime in order to maintain productivity. Without adequate rest, machines can overheat, damaging sensitive circuits, while team members can also experience similar catastrophes without sufficient rest.

Overworked machines can simply be turned off, and routine time for maintenance is critical for an organization. Downtime for employees can look like scheduled breaks and vacations, as well as planned company outings and social events (be careful not to overwhelm introverts with required parties, however.)

Preventative maintenance is critical for the continued health of your organization’s valuable equipment, as well as the mental health of your workforce. One way to ensure the productivity of your crew, as counter-intuitive as it may sound, is to make sure everyone is scheduled for and taking regular breaks. Current research uses the 52/17 rule, working for 52 minutes and taking 17 off to allow for maximum productivity.

Once a person has reached a certain level of exhaustion, they begin to make mistakes, so make sure to schedule breaks accordingly. Not only could the company be negatively impacted by preventable errors, but workers who neglect their personal needs also suffer. Employees who work longer hours tend to sleep less, reducing their overall health and potentially raising their health care costs.

It can be a daunting task to effectively manage time needs and workforce constraints to achieve the best production rates. A thriving organization typically employs HR managers and analysts who are skilled at collecting data to organize resources in the best way possible.

Idle time vs. downtime FAQS

Is software available to help minimize idle time and prevent downtime?

There are CMMS software platforms that can help you track the time your employees are away from their computers, and companies can also enforce phone-free policies to keep their crews on task. You can utilize downtime-planning software to effectively schedule your company’s needs around routine maintenance and employee breaks. HR Information Systems (HRIS) can be very helpful in analyzing trends to produce effective schedules.

How do I optimize my planned downtime?

Keep careful track of your organization’s daily activities. For example, what times are the most sales made? Prioritize your needs and assets, make a plan accordingly, and then create a guideline and schedule that outlines your new operating procedures.

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