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I am a chemical engineer, and I have been spending much of the last two months doing nothing (either surfing the web or chatting with other employees) since my project has been very slow. The company has lots of projects and other employees are so busy that they consistently clock in 25% overtime to get their work done.

I have spoken to my lead about this, and he assures me that work is coming 'soon'. I have also tried speaking to a manager about a move to a different project(saying that I think that project will be more exciting for me), but was basically told that it would be very difficult to make it happen.

I am a young engineer with less than a year's experience in this field and as such I would like to learn as much as I can during my first few years, however, I feel that by doing nothing at work, I am inculcating the wrong habits.

I do not think it is wise to mention to my manager that I don't have work because I am afraid he will take it personally against me or my lead.

What are some of the things that I can do to 'kill' time and also learn on the job when I have nothing better to do.

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@jcmeloni, it would have to be a combination of both. If I do have to face this again, I should first exhaust my 'productive' time killing options first. –  Alpha Jul 19 '12 at 1:07
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"This seems to assume I am a programmer. I am not." Umm.. thanks for clarifying that. While you are on the subject, I note that some of the other answers might have been better if you had stated what you are. I mean, I'd guess 'surfing the web' implies an office environment and therefore you're not a lion tamer who lacks a lion (though thinking about it, with tablet devices, even that is possible) - but more specific questions will attract better answers. –  Andrew Thompson Jul 19 '12 at 8:10
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Start tinkering on stuff outside of the project, talk to people, grab a cup of coffee, read a book, write a blog, jog, do some errands at the bank, play pranks on your co-workers... there is always something you can do. Heck, I always enjoy down times because I get an opportunity to train myself (or do stupid stuff with little risk). –  Spoike Jul 19 '12 at 8:56
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@Andrew, I am a chemical engineer. –  Alpha Jul 19 '12 at 11:39
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@alpha, why exactly do you think your manager will have a problem with you indicating that you're idle? –  Angelo Jul 19 '12 at 14:42
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12 Answers

up vote 38 down vote accepted

I am a retired engineer. During my 30 year career life, I had been in this kind of situation several times before. Hope my experience and advice can be helpful and useful.

For those who never have this kind of experience before, your story is unimaginable. What? You have nothing to work on while other employees have to work overtime. I would like to assure you this is not very uncommon. There are various kinds of reason for it.

The first time I had it was because I participated a project which was waiting for a huge government contract award. The project manager had to keep the employees for almost a year. The government kept saying the award will be next month. Finally, the contract award was cancelled because Congress did not approve the funding.

I had similar experience since then. One time, it was because my group manager was in a power struggle. He had to keep his people together so that he could rise again.

My advice is to use this time to learn. You can get on Stack Exchange sites. Help yourself and others by asking and answering questions. You can get on some other self learning sites related to your profession.

I do want to warn you. Do not get on any bad web sites. Having no work is not your fault. Getting on a bad site is. You could get fired.

If you exhausted all web sites you're interested in, bring a good book(related to your profession) to the office and read it. Take evening classes and study in the office may be another option if it takes longer than a few months.

Lastly, don't worry. They won't let it continue forever. Somebody will find out and get you work to do.

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Please explain given your experience why getting a new job is not the right solution. Thanks. –  blunders Jul 19 '12 at 3:44
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The OP did not say he dislikes his employer. There is no indication that his company does not want him. He only has this situation for two months. He has less than a year experience. His situation typically happens in large companies. Small companies cannot afford to let it happen. Internal transfer may be hard at this time. Getting outside job may not be what he wants. If I were a Google employee, I would not want to get job ouside unless I am forced to. –  scaaahu Jul 19 '12 at 4:01
    
@ scaaahu: The OP replied to an answer I posted saying they were looking for a new job, which is a sign to me they are unhappy; I deleted the answer, since it suggested looking for a new job. –  blunders Jul 19 '12 at 11:59
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@blunders, I re-read OP's question, the last line reads "What are some of the things that I can do to 'kill' time and also learn on the job when I have nothing better to do.". I do not see anything indicating he wants to look for a new job. OP's own will is the most important thing here, isn't it? –  scaaahu Jul 19 '12 at 12:10
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There has to be a reason for the project being slow, and I would be incredibly surprised if a manager got mad at an employee for requesting additional work since their current project is going too slow and they never have enough to do. An employee being honest isn't something that is frowned upon. My manager would have been happy to give me some extra small assignment to do, be it filing some paper work or just some boring task on the computer.

You could spend your time learning if your manager approved of that kind of usage. I'm not familiar with how acceptable of a practice that would be. If it's not, you can spend time reviewing your current or previous projects. Reflect on things you've done wrong, things you could improve on in the future, and evaluate yourself on your performance.

If all else fails, follow the policy:

Time to lean, time to clean.

If you have excessive spare time in your day, just go help out around the office. Clean your office, organize things, go clean up the lounge a bit, whatever. Just be helpful. Companies don't appreciate paying you to just sit there and twiddle your thumbs. Usually my manager always had some general tasks for me to do when I had no work left for the day, so I'd just start doing them if that's what he/she would normally have you do in that situation. It's not like a neatly organized and sparkly clean workspace ever hurt anyone. I even do this at home when I get really, really bored.

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A professional office is not the time or place to start cleaning, that is unless you want to be a professional cleaner. –  blunders Jul 19 '12 at 2:10
    
@blunders: I'm not saying get out rubber gloves and scrub stains out of stuff or emptying out the refrigerator, but there's nothing wrong with general cleaning up, especially in your own workspace. –  animuson Jul 19 '12 at 2:13
    
According to the OP, they have been doing nothing for two months, cleaning will just draw possible unwanted attention to them. Do not get me wrong, if it was requested they should clean, then by all means they should clean. Either way, it's time for them to look for a new job in my opinion. –  blunders Jul 19 '12 at 2:27
    
@blunders: What? The OP seems to have indicated that it's just his current project that is going slow that is causing so much extra time. Why would that constitute looking for a new job? "I'm bored" = "I need a new job"? –  animuson Jul 19 '12 at 2:43
    
Saying "current project" infers that the OP stated they've been on other projects, which was never stated. What was stated was that the OP has been on a project, has been at the company less than a year, and has had nothing to do for the past two most recent months. Being bored, and not being assigned any work is not the same thing. You're welcome to your opinion that it is not a problem, but not knowing any additional facts, it is a problem in my opinion. –  blunders Jul 19 '12 at 2:53
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In the spirit of "it's better to ask for forgiveness than for permission:"

  1. Learn, wherever you can find lessons. The internet, books, your colleagues. The time of my most intensive knowledge building was usually when things weren't that hectic in my regular work.

  2. Help in other projects. It seems some people have lots of work to do and it would be a safe guess that you can help some of them in some way. Why shouldn't you? Again, I wouldn't treat it as a hard requirement that your manager gives you a formal permission. In some organizations ha can have little interest in their people helping in other projects.

  3. Experiment in any work you currently do. Considering you have plenty of time you can experiment with the way you do work. If it works you learn and you learn in the best possible way -- by doing. If it doesn't you should have enough time to recover from any issues that may arise and still deal with the task. The less pressure from outside the more safe we feel to change how we do things.

  4. Start a side-project. Some companies make policies that employees can use 20% of their time building whatever they want. Why not to use your time this way? Again, the best case scenario is that you build something useful for others. The worst case is that you learn something. I guess there definitely are simple things that could be dealt with and which could improve how others to their work (look for boring daily chores first).

In either case the gain for both you and the company is what you've learned. If you're lucky enough there can also be a more tangible product of your work.

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2. Is a little more challenging than it looks. Projects don't like sharing resources at my organization. I'll put more effort into trying 1, 3, and 4. –  Alpha Jul 19 '12 at 11:41
    
@Alpha: It's not clear if you're new to Stack Exchange or not, but if you find an answer to a question you've ask (or for that matter someone else ask) useful -- click the up arrow next to the related answer. On the same note, if the answer is not of use, click the down arrow. Since you've asked the question, and again not clear if you're a new user, if you find an answer that answers your question, click the checkmark next to the related answer. Cheers, welcome to the site, and wise you the best! –  blunders Jul 19 '12 at 11:56
    
@blunders, I was delibrately using a new account to avoid people finding out who I am. I have registered the new account and will do as I know I should. –  Alpha Jul 19 '12 at 12:08
    
@Alpha: Thought so, but was puzzled by your comments agreeing with the answers, but the answers having no upvotes... :-) ...also, just an FYI, having multiple accounts is not a big deal on SE as long as you're not doing bad stuff like using them as sockpuppet accounts. –  blunders Jul 19 '12 at 12:36
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As a young engineer, you should already have taken the Fundamentals of Engineering exam (used to be called EIT). If not, you should be studying for it. If you do have your FE/EIT, you may want to take some time to study towards your PE exam. Chemical Engineering is one of the engineering disciplines where a PE is pretty much required. My father was a ChemE and kept his PE active until he retired. Many of the jobs he got in the last half of his career were not open to unlicensed engineers.

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It takes 5 years after the FE to apply for the PE. That is still pretty far away. I have taken my FE. –  Alpha Jul 19 '12 at 21:06
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Sounds like you are wating fo ra contract to come through and they don't want to assign you to anything else to make sure you are avialable when it does. If you know the kind of work the new project will require, then you can start gettign yourself up-to-speed on the technical details you will need. You can also start looking at processes and see if you can design a better way to do some of the things in the office. As you are an engineer, have you taken the engineering professional exams yet? If not use this time to seriously study for them. Even if you aren't ready yet in expertence to take the tests, doing in-depth study will make it much easier when your are ready to prep for the tests.

One of my first bosses had a rule, if you have nothing to do, you had better be reading the policy manual (several hundred pages of technical material) or doing some other training. It looks bad to just be playing, so something work-related even if it is doing something as mind-numbing as reading policy manuals. And if you have technical policies, you will be surprised at how much it helps you when it is time to do the work to know the policies backwards and forwards.

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Come up with some project that would require similar technology. Or learn a completely different language or framework.

Some companies give 20% time for personal projects. You just get to take your 20% up front. Because once a project starts, you'll have no time for this.

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Have you done this before, and if so, what was the result, and why do you believe your past circumstances apply to this question? Thanks. –  blunders Jul 18 '12 at 23:56
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This seems to assume I am a programmer. I am not. –  Alpha Jul 18 '12 at 23:58
    
Personal projects does not have to be programming related. If the OP is an engineer, all engineering disciplines can have some kind of personal project to do. Even chemists can do fun stuff. Heck, even economists or office workers can do some number crunching for fun or learn how to use Excel properly. –  Spoike Jul 19 '12 at 9:03
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If you're interested in staying with the company, I think you absolutely should indicate that you don't have enough work to your manager.

You said that you're afraid that the manager will hold it against you, but actually the opposite is true if the manager cares about his team and productivity.

Honestly the fact that your manager doesn't know you are effectively idle is the sign of a serious organizational problem. It really is the job of the manager to know what the members of the team are doing (at least project-wise and sometimes down to critical individual tasks).

If you're concerned about how to phrase it, say something like "I have a lot of free bandwidth, are there any other projects that I can help out with?" No rational manager could have a problem with that.

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My manager would take it to mean that I am questioning his ability to do his job (i.e. give me work). –  Alpha Jul 19 '12 at 12:16
    
I seriously doubt that! If you approach the issue with tact it would be a much appreciated "reality check." If the manager thinks you're busy and and you're doing nothing that is a big problem. Be proactive and don't be afraid. –  Angelo Jul 19 '12 at 13:12
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If your manager's manager figures out that they are paying you for little work, and there is no evidence that you raised this issue then you are the bad guy. Period. You don't need to be a pest about it, but you need it on the record, preferably in writing (an email will do), that you raised this concern with your immediate supervisor, and were not just hiding in a corner screwing off. –  Jim In Texas Jul 19 '12 at 15:47
    
@JimInTexas, well put! –  Angelo Jul 19 '12 at 16:27
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When you have some idle time at work: Seize the opportunity. Do you know of any schleps that need to be solved? Go ahead and try to devise a solution. Are your coworkers working on difficult problems? Could they use some help?

Contributions to these efforts will pay dividends to both the company and yourself. Even if you aren't immediately recognized with a promotion, pay increase, or visible sign of praise, making an effort and taking initiative will transform you into a producer. When you become a producer, you'll be well on your way to promotions, increased earning power, and career success.

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Social Networking sites are blocked in our office.

So whenever i am free at work, i usually spend much of my time studying my previous assignments, researching about enhancements in the technology on which i am working upon

and most of the time in Stack overflow solving others problem. I think its among the best ways to learn about things.

But also, you need to find out the reason, why you are not being assigned work, sometimes these reasons could be severe.

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Since you lack experience, I recommend you either start improving your knowledge on the technologies you already know or start learning a new technology that interest you. Better yet, try to learn something that relates to your team's current projects. Create a prototype of it. Show it off to your team lead or boss.

Appreciate your free time, because the time will come when you won't have time to scratch your head.

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Have you done this before, and if so, what was the result, and why do you believe your past circumstances apply to this question? Thanks. –  blunders Jul 19 '12 at 3:12
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I'd suggest that you take any of three options.

1) Speak to your manager in passing (don't make a whole meeting with it). Mention that you finished what he had assigned you, and was wondering if he/she had anything else they could give you.

2) RESEARCH YOUR FIELD!! You say you want to learn as much as you can during your first years, and that's great! But you have to take some of that into your own hands at times. Read about the most ground-breaking/cutting edge technologies, things you didn't get taught in school. Pick a topic you have interest in in your field (newer, more efficient methods being developed for spectroscopy, new ways to create fuel cells, etc etc...). Learn that stuff.

3) Go to one of those other project, where everyone's putting in craptons of overtime (preferably one focusing on something you've already researched heavily in #2) and see if they could use another head in the mix.

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If I were you, I would utilize this time to learn new stuff in my field. I would also take tests after finishing the courses. That said, here are some useful sites to do the same.

  1. www.coursera.org - You can enroll yourself to any available course. Choose something that is relevant to your field. Many courses offer certificates signed by the course instructor.

  2. www.ted.com - TED videos are a very good source of knowledge. You can try watching speeches relevant to your area.

  3. www.brainbench.com - This a wonderful site to take tests on various topics. It ranks you against people who took the same test in the past. The questions asked in brainbench are far more meaningful than the ones in other sites. (in my opinion).

Apart from these, Check if your company has a separate department that takes care of 'Employee Trainings'. If they do, then you can opt-in for some trainings there. They might even pay you to take competitive exams.

All the best.

PS: I have seen people browsing trivial stuff online all day (shopping sites, games etc) when they have no work to do. These are so wrong to do when you are getting salary from someone. Either you quit or you prepare yourself for the betterment of the company.

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