In Business, what is Idle Time?

wiseGEEK Writer

Any good business knows that one way to lose money regularly is to pay employees who cannot get anything done because of factors that they don’t control. This is called idle time, downtime or dead time, and it can occur for a variety of reasons. Sometimes the occurrence is chance and unlikely to occur often, such as if a sudden power outage hits the workplace and no one can turn on a computer. Other times, the way employers structure the work or schedule employees results in a certain amount of idle time, and this is simply not profitable.

Businessman giving a thumbs-up
Businessman giving a thumbs-up

Idle time from the chance occurrence like a power outage affects most businesses at one point or another. It can be especially difficult if natural disasters hit and power isn’t restored for days. Some employers contract with employees to continue paying them in these instances, and this accrues huge amounts of downtime. Not only can the company not make money during this time, but they’re losing it to employees who can’t work. Many employers feel it’s not fair to deprive employees of income during these times, which is, of course, highly admirable, if still costly.

In business planning, employers do need to consider if things like power outages are more than a chance occurrence. If they happen frequently, as from frequent storms, a company might decide to make investments to reduce dead time. For example, having a back-up generator might be one way to keep a company going and employees working. That investment could be less costly than the money lost when everyone has to head home instead of finishing their work.

There are ways in which companies work on reducing idle time, or can examine their practices and determine if they have too much of it. Too many employees may result in some employees being idle, since there are more than enough people to handle the business workload. Companies might decide to cut workforce or to move some employees from one department to another where there are too few helpers.

In manufacturing, one of the key causes of idle time results from the use of machines, although this can be true in businesses with poor computer systems. Having to wait for a machine to finish its process can result in hours of idle time for people like engineers and manufacturing technicians. Such problems are exacerbated if machines used to produce materials are notorious for breaking down. When they do, workers could wait for hours with nothing to do and this contributes to huge increases in indirect manufacturing costs.

There can be ways to address these issues and reduce idle time. Diversifying skills of employees so that they have other jobs they can complete while waiting for a machine to end its process is one approach. Investing in better equipment or putting employees to work on improving current equipment may be of use too. Clear attention to schedule of work processes of machines and workers is also important so that downtime is minimized.

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Discussion Comments


The idea of idle time always sounds better than it actually is. When I'm busy, all I want to do is relax and do nothing, yet I also can't stand having to be somewhere, like work, and having nothing to do. Idle time is not only a waste to the employer, but also frustrating for the employee.

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