Idle time: why it’s costing you and how to fix it

In an ideal world, your employees would be 100% productive all the time. But this isn’t the reality. Whether intentional or for reasons outside of the employee’s control, idle time is one of the biggest reasons for decline in employee productivity. 

Understand what causes idle time and equip yourself with the right tools to track and manage it. Read on for our advice on the best way to reduce idle time and stay as productive—and profitable—as possible.

What is idle time?

Idle time, or waiting time as it’s also called, is any time spent by an employee not working when they’re able to.

For example, picture an hourly worker on an assembly line. If the expected number of parts pass her by and she inspects each one of them—or at least as many as she can—she’s being a productive employee. If there’s a malfunction somewhere along the line that’s causing her to have to wait between clusters of parts, that’s idle time. 

Types of idle time 

Idle time can be broken down into two different types: planned idle time and unplanned idle time. 

Planned idle time

Planned idle time is idle time that’s known ahead of time. Also known as downtime, planned idle time is a normal business practice, scheduled in the calendar, and not typically controlled by management. 

Unplanned idle time

Unplanned idle time comes as a surprise and is usually symptomatic of a larger issue somewhere in your business. Management typically (but not always) plays a larger role in causing and handling unplanned idle time. 

Who uses idle time as a metric?

In any business, there’s what you’re capable of producing and what you’re actually producing. Idle time is one of the biggest causes of this gap. 

Think about it: idle time is unproductive work time, and often unnecessarily. The less of it that takes place at your workplace, the more productive you become. 

This is why any business can benefit from tracking idle time as a metric, as it helps you:

  1. Identify how big the gap is between your current work output and max output potential
  2. Locate where in your company idle time is happening the most
  3. Track the effects of changes you make and know if you’re becoming more or less productive

As you track idle time over a period of time, you can start to understand its effects on your business’s larger key performance indicators, namely profit. You’ll likely find that the less idle time taking place across your teams, the more money you make. 

What causes idle time?

  • Quarterly maintenance on a piece of equipment, during which that equipment can’t be used and put to work
  • Scheduled lunch breaks
  • Scheduled vacation time
  • Employee training
  • Waiting on a dependent for a project

On the other hand, some common reasons for unplanned idle time—the more important of the two to address—are:

  • Someone not being able to use a piece of equipment for the second half of their shift because of a sudden malfunction
  • Someone not showing up to their shift
  • Lack of necessary resources, assistance, or equipment to perform the job
  • Unequal work-to-staff ratio for a scheduled shift (over or understaffing)
  • Employees striking
  • Employees not knowing what to do
  • No system to monitor how long breaks are
  • No accountability system to keep people working
  • The internet or power goes out
  • Quiet quitting

How to track idle time

Now that you know what idle time is, let’s learn how to track it. 

One issue you might encounter is justifying time-tracking to your employees. Make it clear that you’re not doing it for micromanagement or punitive reasons. You’re doing it for the betterment of your company and everyone in it: to optimize productivity, identify workflow bottlenecks, improve work processes, and most importantly, to pay everyone more accurately.

With that said, tracking idle time is often as simple as using a time-tracking tool.

For example, Homebase automatically tracks hours, breaks, and overtime, allowing you to look back at your timesheets every week to see where unproductive time is taking place. 

If you’re wondering how this applies to teams that are on different job-sites or working delivery routes, GPS-enabled time tracking is used to help you verify clock-in locations, snap photos, and assign PINs. This goes a long way to avoiding time theft and buddy punching.

Are employees taking their breaks during their scheduled times? Is an unfixed technical problem constantly stopping work? Are too many people being scheduled for certain shifts leading to idle hands?

These are the types of questions you can begin to answer with a breakdown from an accurate time-tracking tool. 

Here are four more helpful questions to ask when tracking your idle time:

  1. What unplanned idleness is happening and why? What can I do to prevent it in the future?
  2. Are there opportunities to reduce the amount of planned idleness happening?
  3. Are my planned periods of idleness going to plan?
  4. Are the changes I’m making reducing the amount of unplanned non-working time I’m seeing in my employees’ timesheets? If not, why?

How to use the idle time formula

Seeing idleness lessen over time on your employees’ timesheets is great. But in order to understand the real impact of any changes you make, you need to be able to connect that non-working time with productivity.

To do this, you first need to define what a productive shift looks like, or how much work should be completed in a shift on a normal day with no issues. 

Calculating unproductive time

This value, which we’ll call “X”, might look different for different shift sizes, departments, times of the year, and other scenarios. It helps us by establishing an expectation for each scenario. 

For example, let’s say you have two shift scenarios: an eight-hour shift and a 12-hour shift. All other variables (i.e. number of people scheduled to work) are the same between the shifts. With four more hours of work, your expectation for the 12-hour shift is likely going to be higher than the 8-hour shift. 

With your expectation values nailed down, you can then compare them to the actual work output being done, which we can call “Y”. The difference is your idle time value, which we’ll call “Z”. 

Or, calculate it using the following formula: 

X (work expectation) – Y (actual work being done) = Z (idle time) 

Putting this into practice, let’s say you expect a shift to produce 100 chainsaw parts, but they’re only producing 80. Here’s how that looks in our formula:

100 (X) – 80 (Y) = 20 (Z)

You could also turn your idle time value into a percentage to make it easier to track. Sticking with our example above, a shift producing 80 parts out of an expected 100 is experiencing 20% idleness. We come to this number by dividing our idle value by our work expectation value.

Then, as you make changes, you can see how they affect this percentage. More productive means a lower idleness percentage, and less productive means a higher idleness percentage.

5 ways to reduce idle time 

Now that you know how to track this unproductive time, let’s look at five ways to reduce it. 

1. Learn how your employees are spending their time

As the saying goes, you can’t manage what isn’t measured. 

Before you can begin to think about how to reduce idle time, you need to know where, when, and how it’s happening. Unless you’re standing directly over the shoulders of your employees, the best way to do this is with a time-tracking tool. 

You can look at your timesheets at the end of the week, find areas where time isn’t being used optimally, and start to strategize how you can fix these problem areas.

Plus, there are many other benefits of using a time-tracking tool, like making your employees more conscious of how they spend their time. 

Just like how people are more likely to go to the gym when they have an accountability buddy, employees are more likely to work harder when they’re accountable to a time clock

2. Schedule your employees to match the amount of available work

Schedule the right number of people for the amount of work available in any given shift. 

If five people are scheduled for a shift with work for three people, what are those other two going to do? Yet another reason why it’s important to define work expectations for different types of shifts, ideally down to the individual. 

It’s great if all your employees are go-getters and find work for themselves, but that’s really not their responsibility. It requires them to have a bigger view of their roles than they often do.

Not all work is productive either. Just because an employee keeps themselves busy doesn’t mean what they’re doing is worth doing. This is especially true if there’s no one available to ask for help.

There are also scenarios where the right number of people are scheduled for the amount of work but the resources required to do that work are lacking. For example, if seven machine operators are scheduled for a shift but only six machines are available, one operator is left unable to do their job. 

This is why it’s important to sync your schedules with events that affect work output, like planned equipment maintenance, someone’s absence, or seasonal work fluctuation.

Keeping track of all of these events manually can be a job in itself, which is why it’s better to use a tool like Homebase. Homebase can build smarter schedules based on your team’s latest availability, sales forecasts, and labor targets.

3. Make it easy and safe to ask for help

More useful than jumping right to nefarious reasons for idleness is looking at reasons related to your workplace culture.

For example, do your employees feel safe to ask for help? If not, fear might be freezing them in place whenever they encounter a problem. 

Even a small problem can cost an employee hours of idleness. Apply this to all of your employees, and you’re looking at a major blockage of your business’ productivity.

To see if this scenario is affecting your company, go right to your employees. Research reviews about your company, ask your employees directly, send out company polls; test the waters through any means you can. 

If word comes back that seeking help is a problem, some possible remedies are:

  • Scheduled check-ins: Blocked-off time for employees to check in with managers makes it clear that support is a priority. 
  • Clear role expectations: Making clear what’s expected of someone in the next 30, 60, and even 90 days takes away a lot of role-related confusion. 
  • Onboarding buddies: First impressions are everything at a new workplace. Assigning new hires a supportive onboarding buddy they can turn to for help gives the impression of a supportive culture from day one.
  • Clear documentation: Who do I ask for help? How do I ask them? What channels are for what problems? Giving your employees an employee handbook with answers to questions like these helps prevent confusion around not knowing what to do. 

4. Invest in preventative maintenance

In a way, prioritizing planned idleness helps prevent unplanned idleness. 

Picture desperately trying to get somewhere with a car hovering on empty. No matter how hard you keep your foot on the gas pedal, you’re only going to get so far before you run out of gas. You don’t know where, but it’s guaranteed to eventually happen.

By taking a break to fill up, even if it feels like you’re wasting time, you’re eliminating the randomness factor. Assuming nothing else goes wrong, you no longer have to worry about running out of gas somewhere along the way. 

This same line of thinking applies to the workplace. By regularly maintaining your equipment, prioritizing the mental and physical well-being of your employees, and optimizing your work processes, you reduce malfunctions, burnout, absenteeism, and other sudden-but-avoidable incidents leading to unplanned idleness. 

5. Improve company-wide communication

Many of the causes of employees wasting time are avoidable with good communication. 

If you’ve ever played the game telephone, you know how much a message can change from sender to receiver. In your company, as messages move between more individuals, teams, and channels, there’s a higher and higher chance that their original meaning—or at least part of it—gets lost. 

For example, seasonal sales information not getting communicated to people scheduling your employees, leading to the scheduling of too many or too few people at different times of the year. 

Another example is a piece of equipment  breaking down during a shift. If not reported fast enough, the next shift might show up only to realize they can’t do any work—or without any instruction on what to do in the meantime.

This is why it’s important to have systems and processes in place to ensure as quick and clear communication as possible, especially as you grow bigger as a company.

Depending on your company, these systems and processes might include:

  • Open-door policies encouraging employees to talk to managers anytime
  • Company-wide tools for quick messaging and updates
  • Clear documentation and training on communication protocols
  • Regular meetings
  • Team communications apps like Homebase that allow employees to instantly message each other, share updates, trade shifts, and generally stay in-sync

How Homebase can help track and reduce idle time

Clear communication, adaptive scheduling, and accountability together help reduce idle time at your company. 

Rather than trying to manually address each of these areas separately, save yourself time, money, and stress by using Homebase.

From employee scheduling, time clocks, easy communication tools, payroll, and more, Homebase is a one-stop shop for everything you need to manage your team.

Don’t take our word for it, try Homebase’s time clock and scheduling features to reduce idle time today.

Idle time FAQs

What is idle time?

Idle time, which is also sometimes referred to as waiting time, is any time that work can’t be performed. There’s planned and unplanned idle time. Planned is controlled by management and known ahead of time, while unplanned is often uncontrolled by management and happens suddenly.  

What causes idle time?

Idle time has many causes. Examples of planned idle time causes are seasonal maintenance and employee vacation, and examples of unplanned idle time causes are sudden malfunction and overscheduling for the amount of available work.

How do you track idle time? 

Idle time is best tracked with a time-tracking tool like Homebase. Automatically track how your employees are spending their time and easily see in their timesheets where idleness is taking place. 

What are some ways to reduce idle time?

The best ways to reduce idle time are to:

  1. Make your employees accountable with a time-tracking tool
  2. Schedule your employees to match the amount of available work
  3. Make it easy and safe to ask for help
  4. Invest in preventative maintenance
  5. Improve team communication

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