Not Enough Work For Employees: 10 Considerations for Employers

If you’ve got time to lean, you’ve got time to clean.
Ray Kroc, business leader who purchased and transformed McDonalds

Getting Through ‘Quiet Periods’

At some point in their working life, nearly all business owners and supervisors will have to consider uncomfortable options where there is not enough work for employees. While the anticipated length of the downturn is an important factor, other considerations may exist as well. When there is not enough work for employees, here are 10 possible options an employer may wish to consider, taken either individually or considered in groups:

1. Calculate the Costs:

For slowdowns that persist for longer periods of time, supervisors may have to consider more austere measures when there is not enough work for employees. Will employees be laid-off or terminated? If workforce reductions must occur, what steps must you follow within established contractual agreements, human resource policies, and other legal mandates, such as equal opportunity provisions?

Businesses incur a cost when they pay wages (as well as benefits) to people doing little work. They have to pay a different type of cost when workers leave or must be let go. In these circumstances, they lose the institutional knowledge that the former employees possessed, and will have to absorb the costs in lost time and productivity when trying to hire and train replacement workers in the future.

Companies bear an even different cost when they replace regular workers with independent contractors or contingent employees. Think of the disappointment some college and university students experience when many of their courses are taught by graduate student assistants or adjunct faculty. Appreciating the talents of all parties involved can sometimes become a delicate dance.

Bonds between workers and their employers change when the fundamental relationship between them is modified. If the prolonged period of less business activity is somewhat predictable–such as a slow period in a tourist destination–perhaps allowing for more generous vacation time or annual leave during that period will solve the problem. Search for a way to save costs by seeking innovative solutions.

2. Build Rapport Internally:

Networking should occur at your workplace, as well as in other venues. Slower times may allow for co-workers to build rapport while going out to lunch or spending time in other, less formal social settings. Having opportunities to interact with co-workers–speaking and listening to them–allows you to add a personal dimension in a business setting that may not be possible during frenzied periods and busier times.

Managers and supervisors may also consider these periods as an opportune time to meet with groups of workers away from the office or their usual workspace. Talk about your vision for their department and listen to their concerns. Having these unscripted, informal interactions will give them a sense that their efforts contribute in a meaningful way and are noticed at a higher level.

3. Dream and Brainstorm:

On days when not enough work for employees has come through the front door, consider setting aside some time for envisioning new concepts, products, or services. For visual learners, daydreaming may be especially effective. While having permission to brainstorm in their regular work environment, they may think of new approaches or items that would not come to mind in a traditional meeting.

Dreams may spark ideas worth sharing, refining, and pursuing. A brainstorm might encourage thoughts that seem unsettled within the framework of the status quo, but ones that encourage you to consider different alternatives and new paths forward.

4. Encourage Organization:

Productivity often suffers when workers cannot find the tools of their trade. The cluttered desk of yesteryear may have transformed into the cluttered icons on a computer’s desktop screen today. Emails opened weeks or months ago should be archived or discarded as appropriate.

Organizing while reducing clutter and mess cuts across many types of jobs and work settings. In a restaurant, this may involve checking expiration dates and rotating supplies to avoid waste. At a construction site, workers awaiting shipments might use unexpected downtime to clear site debris or prepare the area for when materials arrive.

5. Evaluate Accomplishments:

A short period of downtime provides those with not enough work for employees to have time to take inventory of their accomplishments. Managers may use this time to make notes for forthcoming performance reviews of employees they supervise. Workers should value this opportunity to review job assignments and consider points of pride as well as areas for growth.

Depending on the job site and type of business, some of this reflection may include group discussions within or across departments. Participation by human resources staff allows workers to understand how the business evaluates their achievements in annual reviews and at other career milestones.

6. Learn and Share Your Discoveries:

A time when there is not enough work for employees can become a learning experience. Individuals might use these slower periods of the business cycle to expand their professional knowledge through blogs, online forums, and webinars. Bookmarking appropriate web resources and reviewing current trends in the professional literature keep you engaged in an ever-changing environment.

Share knowledge you gain through self-learning and other, more formalized educational experiences. Co-workers, clients, and supervisors may appreciate links or articles you share with them. One practical example of applied learning involves cross-training. When you shadow workers in other areas of the business, you understand how their efforts fit into the larger picture.

Pursue appropriate professional development opportunities. Attending a conference, enrolling in a workshop, or joining an industry-specific organization may expand your awareness of best practices. Taking a class or earning an industry-evaluated certification or license may open doors in the future.

7. Network Externally:

When coupled with learning and sharing discoveries, networking keeps you visible and aware of trends that are transforming your chosen career or profession. You may meet new vendors and gain new proficiency from information shared by others. If conditions at your present employer do not improve, the social networks that you have already established may introduce you to other job opportunities.

Networking activities take various forms. Social media and online discussion forums offer an excellent way to reach out to those with common interests. Professional organizations, trade groups, unions, and similar entities allow you to learn about colleagues in the same profession who work at different locations.

A successful networking strategy requires regular planning and organization on your part. Post strategically on your professional social networking profile, and keep it updated. Be sure to review your resume on a regular schedule to guarantee that it reflects all of your experiences and accomplishments that may be valued by a prospective employer.

8. Plan Your Pathway

Taking a few moments to plan in the present saves much more time for doing it in the future. Strategize for your future and consider your options by beginning each day with a clear plan of action. Make note of any tasks you wish to accomplish and evaluate your success at meeting your goals at the end of each day.

An important activity for times when there is not enough work for employees is to encourage them to participate in the company’s planning process. Assign them to a project with a specific goal and have them consider the steps necessary to complete the project successfully. Such collaborative exercises strengthen bonds within the organization and build a sense of investment and confidence in the individual.

9. Reconsider Paused Projects:

During busy times, your employees focus on the tasks that have the highest priority or require urgent attention. Slower moments provide a precious opportunity to re-examine tasks on that long-forgotten ‘to do’ list. If workers have had to put some requests on hold at an earlier time, they now have a chance to address them and reconsider their relative importance in light of present circumstances.

Priorities change. Asking employees to reconsider earlier projects allows the company’s stakeholders to decide whether to restart, modify, or end these projects.

10. Review Customer Feedback and Follow Up:

Slower times provide your employees with an opportunity to collect and evaluate customer feedback. Staff with outreach and marketing responsibilities might use this time to reach out to recent customers. Direct communication allows them to gauge customer satisfaction and resolve any problems or concerns customers share with them.

Even employees not directly involved in customer outreach will benefit from this experience. Reviewing rankings and comments on social media–even if they are not replying to such posts–allows these staff members to understand which actions, products, and services are appreciated and those that need improvement.

Closing Thoughts . . .

The 10 options mentioned above offer a general framework to consider when there is not enough work for employees that you supervise. In some circumstances, you may have to modify these options to comply with HR policies at your place of employment or other governing documents, such as collective bargaining agreements.

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About Author

Founder of With over 20 years of experience in HR and various roles in corporate world, Jenny shares tips and advice to help professionals advance in their careers. Her blog is a go-to resource for anyone looking to improve their skills, land their dream job, or make a career change.

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