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I work in a small office (three people usually) and I am fairly new (here less than three months). In general, I have things to do or can pester my boss to either give me something to do or make the judgement call to send me home (I'm part time).

On the few occasions I've tried to do things on my own, he's usually come down pretty hard about doing things on my own without confirming with him first. (Even when they were things he approved of, he would rather I come to him first.)

So today, I finished up with my project pretty early (it's been a slow week), and my boss and coworker were going out for a meeting. I told them I wouldn't have much to do, because I was wrapping up. They told me to stay and man the phones.

Unfortunately, in this case, I was kind of at a loss for what to do. I've run around the workbenches and put all the tools back in place, I've wrapped up all the spare Cat 5s (it's that kind of office), put them back in the bins and I've vacuumed. I know rummaging around on the Stack Exchange network probably isn't what my boss intended, but I thought I'd ask The Workplace if anyone had had an experience like this.

What should I do when my boss explicitly says he has nothing for me to do?

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marked as duplicate by gnat, Garrison Neely, Jan Doggen, jcmeloni, Michael Grubey Aug 4 at 12:44

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What ever you do, make sure you let your boss know you did it. Sounds like you're finding a bunch of things to do which may go unnoticed (cleaning etc, things without a deliverable), make sure they know how much value you're adding - unprompted - whether they give you other work or not. –  Sam Jul 31 at 10:07
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"They told me to stay and man the phones." He didn't explicitly say he had nothing for you to do, he told you to stay and man the phones. Waiting for the phone to ring isn't the most exciting thing in the world, but it is of value to your boss that someone be there to answer if a customer calls. –  David Conrad Jul 31 at 15:16

7 Answers 7

up vote 61 down vote accepted

What do do when my boss explicitly says he has nothing for me to do

He already told you to "stay and man the phones", so that's not "nothing". You clearly must stay and you clearly must man the phones.

While you are manning the phones, there is almost certainly something you could do that wouldn't cause your boss to come down hard on you.

Perhaps, more cleaning? Perhaps reading work-related items? Perhaps some self-training? Perhaps create some documentation (for yourself or for others)?

In the future, you can be a bit more proactive. Next time, you could say something like "No problem, I'll man the phones. Anything else you'd like me to do to fill the time?"

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I'd add writing documentation to that list. It's one thing that every office needs and most don't have enough of. And that goes double for an IT or Customer Support office. Whether it's taking inventory of your supplies (like the number and length of Cat5s you have available), documenting procedures or creating templates, there are many things you can do that will save your team time and effort further down the line when things get busy again. –  Lilienthal Jul 31 at 14:54
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I'd add testing on the list, testing is never enough. –  Silviu Burcea Aug 1 at 3:45

Train yourself! Think of something you'd like to know how to do and learn it, whether that's a technical skill or a workplace process of some kind. It'll keep you engaged and make you a more valuable worker.

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+1. But of course discuss this with your manager first. –  Stephan Kolassa Jul 30 at 16:36

There is always things to do, even if you think there is not. I have had few slow days even weeks in my not so long carrier. I always find something to do, help others, read some documentation, actually ask if there is something to do. Even when there is none of listed abow possible, you can educate yourself and self learn something. Always train your brains, of course on actual work matter. If you have the luxury of learning something that you need in other matters than even better.

Never stop thinking and brainstorming and never think there is nothing to do.

Here is some motivational quite:

Let our advance worrying become advance thinking and planning.

Winston Churchill

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I worked in a company that resulted in us having some down-time. Sometimes it was after a busy period so we used it to work on "nice-to-get-done" tasks. Other times, we used it for training.

Your circumstance seems a little different; you're new so a good place to start would be writing up a plan for when you have down-time. As other users have suggested, training is one of the best places to start.

Write yourself a training plan of things that could/would be useful for your role. If there is anything in the company you've notice could be improved, draw up some possible solutions on how you could improve them. It doesn't even necessarily need to be overly formal but when you've done this, present it to your boss.

As one of my previous bosses said to me, "Don't come to me with problems; bring me solutions."

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It sounds to me that you are in the first phase of the new job (S1), when you need a lot of direction and information. This is not because you are not intelligent enough, this is because you are new.

Good bosses know about it, and keep the information/direction flowing for new hires. However, some superiors don't know about it, and let new hires swim alone in the deep, without giving sufficient direction.

See this summary about the Situational Leadership II model here.

Otherwise, when you are in S4, workload usually varies over time, busy and less-busy periods alternate each other. These can be days, weeks, or months, depending on the nature of the job. The main uses of the less-busy period are:

  1. Recover emotionally. Use this period of less stress intentionally, as this is a natural time to recover and charge up for the next busy period, when your emotional stamina is needed again.
  2. Work ahead. Training, long term projects, organizing, creative work, to create buffer for the busy period.
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This does not really answer the 'what to do' question. Even point 2. does not tell much given your assumption that the OP is new on the job. –  Jan Doggen Jul 30 at 20:18
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Hey olee, could you clarify with an edit what the asker should do, based on the asker's situation. Thank you. What should the relaxing period consist of exactly? Does this mean do nothing at all, take a nap, etc? I think some clarification will help someone who is new to understand exactly what would be acceptable. Hope this helps. :) –  jmort253 Jul 31 at 1:59

Keep a journal. Note things that might need attention, and then start listing potential fixes. You'll either be asked what you keep logging or you'll take the list to your boss to ask if you can implement things from the list.

I've rarely been in a position with nothing to do, but I always have at least one list of "things that possibly should be done". (Don't make a list of "things wrong in this office"! Especially when you're 'the new guy'.) In a time when simple conversation is happening, ask if you can have some semi-regular informal time to ask about and learn about how the office functions. Use your journal for subject matter.

I don't recall any 'small office' environment that didn't have a couple procedures that no one liked. Maybe structuring time sheets; maybe filling out an expense report; maybe making travel plans. There's always something that needs attention and that everyone wants to change. (Large offices can be even worse.) Use those to ask if there is some back-end process that is addressed by doing the onerous front-end process. If not, then maybe you'll have suggestions that'll make everyone. And if there is a back-end reason, maybe the front-end can be improved.

Your coworkers won't be upset if you ask the boss about things that they also dislike (but might not have felt comfortable complaining about).

We don't know what minute-to-minute activities are in your office. But your journal can keep a lot of things easily available to you without our suggestions. Use your daily experience.

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Think about something that your boss or coworkers are better at than you and then read about how to do it. Like was said before, train yourself. Come up with ways to make your office more efficent and then present those ideas to your boss. When you don't have a lot to do it allows you to do very careful work, so take advantage of that.

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