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I do a lot of tech support work and sometimes I find myself waiting on people or generally going through a slow time. I get a phone call something like once a week. I mainly setup virtual machines and move things around. One thing I do in these downtimes is to clean out the storage room and recycle all the scrap paper. Does anyone have any techniques for finding other things I can do, even if it's just to appear busy when I don't have work? My boss really puts a high value on appearing busy because he thinks it would look bad on his reputation if his employees aren't.

Also, I think my boss keeps in mind when certain people are around. For example when we are alone he has told me to "just browse the internet" but it seems the more people around the more he's checking up on me and making sure I'm doing work. Should I be aware of anything in particular? For example should I make note of who he's trying to impress (even though in the hiarchy it seems it's people of equal or lower rank than him)?

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I can safely say that cleaning out the storage room / doing the recycling although useful will absolutely demonstrate to other people that you aren't busy with your core duties.

Saying that, I don't think there's anything wrong with that - people aren't busy all the time but the fear of acknowledging it in a corporate setting because of how it "looks" is quite unhealthy in my experience. Saying that, are there processes you could automate? Tools you can document? Other members of staff you can train?

There are probably things in your "core" duties that could be done or improved with this downtime without resorting to work which will immediately signal that your time isn't being productively used.

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    +1 for being the only answer to suggest finding actual value adding work to do – Rhys Mar 27 '13 at 15:14
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    If you're not busy and you automate processes, won't that exacerbate the problem? – Amy Blankenship Mar 27 '13 at 21:02
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    @AmyBlankenship - It has the opposite effect. When you show that you can do more then management starts finding more for you to do. Besides if I ever actually program my self out of a Job I would put it on my resume and double the amount I charge. – IDrinkandIKnowThings Mar 28 '13 at 13:00
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    I've worked myself out of several (not all of them programming jobs). Note that IME management views people who are this productive as just embarassing/threatening (I've had more than one manager think I was after his job simply because I could do the job of everyone there, and well). So it doesn't usually come out in practice as something that looks wonderful on your resume. – Amy Blankenship Mar 28 '13 at 13:40
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    +1 for Amy, and I've also coded myself out of a job that had a fixed budget (they were happy I finished it early, and I guess I learned a valuable lesson). Unfortunately saying "My last contract ended early because I was too awesome" is a tough sell at an interview. – MrFox Mar 28 '13 at 19:07
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I think this is highly industry-specific. In the restaurant business, there's a saying: If you've got time to lean, you've got time to clean. Essentially everybody, whether front or back of house, is expected to clean in their downtime. But I think if you saw a lawyer or accountant tidying the mailroom and doing the recycling, you'd think "haven't you got someting better to do?" A tech support role is between the two. I'd expect you to clean up your own messes, and perhaps to do a quick 5 minute cleanup in the kitchen or mailroom while standing around waiting for coffee to brew or a photocopying job to finish, in other words when you're in that room anyway.

For longer gaps, the ideal task

  • looks exactly like working - you sit at your desk, you have your headset on, you have your hands on the keyboard
  • is entirely interruptible when a real call comes in
  • improves your performance

There are lots of ways to improve your performance. You could get better at your job. For example you could be watching an online course related to the technologies you support. You could relax and improve your mood by reading funny or interesting web sites. You could be active on this site and ones like it, or on Twitter.

You could also take care of virtual tidying by running backups or checking reports or looking through the new items in your worklist, or taking some notes for your year-end review. If you know the time gap will be significant, you could be writing scripts for things you do a lot, or setting up a new system you plan to experiment on but be careful with those kinds of tasks - they can be hard to stop when you're supposed to switch back to your main job.

A bad task

  • tells everyone from 50 feet away "I have no real work to do!" Cleaning up a mess you didn't make does this
  • is embarrassing if someone else sees the details. Personal Facebook does this
  • lowers your performance - by upsetting or distracting you, encouraging you to dislike your work, etc

Most non-technical web sites are going to be bad tasks. Don't get in that habit even if your peers do.

If you have a headset, and it has a good range, you can also go for a walk around the office. This is slightly less boring than staring at your screen and good for your energy levels, but you aren't going to miss a call if one comes in.

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    +1 for staying away from tasks that encourage you to dislike your work. I've fallen into the trap where I read blogs from different software developers, and I was often left feeling like everyone else is working on way cooler projects at work than me, and it was very demotivating. – Jefferson Mar 27 '13 at 13:16
  • @Jefferson: maybe it should motivate you to find more interesting work. – kevin cline Mar 27 '13 at 20:07
  • @kevincline pickins are kinda slim in my area! – Jefferson Mar 27 '13 at 20:33
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    +1 for "... can be hard to stop when you're supposed to switch back to your main job": I coded some little apps on my own for my work, and find hard not to always come back to it and fix little bugs and add new functionalities :/ – Joël Aug 1 '14 at 7:18
  • @Jefferson The grass is always greener on the other side... doesn't mean you shouldn't keep learning from someone else's experiences or issues. – Summer Nov 29 '18 at 12:37
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Many years ago I read in a book "The best way to look busy is to look angry!" That may sound a bit funny at first but from my observations it is true. Just take a bunch of papers and walk down the hallway looking angry and and everyone will expect you are too busy to talk to; you are so busy because something important did go wrong!

I am not saying you should do this. It may be bad behaviour. But I witnessed people acting exactly like that and I knew they had nothing to do.

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    Your first paragraph sounds like it came from a Seinfeld episode (#115, The Hot Tub) – alroc Mar 27 '13 at 12:55
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    I like this idea, as it gets you walking--if you have to 'look' busy, you might as well get some exercise out of it. – DA. Mar 27 '13 at 17:37
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    "The best way to look busy is to look angry!" +1000 for this. – Long Feb 17 '14 at 10:12
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    But I witnessed people acting exactly like that and I knew they had nothing to do. Well, then, it doesn't work, does it?! – starsplusplus Mar 5 '14 at 13:59
  • @starsplusplus doesnt work for @ Holli only. anyway, +100 for the funniest working solution :D – Baby May 27 '14 at 5:38
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Come help people at Stack Exchange.

If you try to do it seriously, it will make you read documentation, solve problems and learn a lot!

You will actually be busy, and look like you are working while you will be... working, for the community.

Sometimes surfing the internet is the best way to answer questions and to deal with blocking problems. This is particularly the case when programming in languages you don't master or to find appropriate solutions for specific kernels, filesystems or packages compatibility for example.

I agree that cruising Stack Exchange is a kind of procrastination; some may even find it addictive. Thus jmort253 wisely warns about the fact that one must avoid thinking that his job is to lurk on SE; I think this is an important advice that I should consider very seriously.

To conclude, I would say that if you boss can't give you anything serious to do, he shouldn't blame you for helping people. Of course you should ask for secondary company-related tasks (and there again, creating an account with the name of your company would be kind of a "free" advertising); or maybe you should engage in personal projects, or look for another job?!

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I look at any occasion where I have a few spare minutes at work as a chance to learn something. I work on small coding projects of my own. I research customer issues or how to make one or more processes better, I answer questions in my company's forums for customers of my product, etc.

I would worry, were I the boss, that if my tech support person/people were cleaning and recycling while idle, that maybe I had too much tech support in-house and might look for ways to cut it back.

My husband did many years of telephone tech support and he would do many of the things I mentioned when he had no calls and a less intense subset like digging for solutions online, etc, while he had calls on hold or muted while the customer carried out some instructions.

These actions, to me, would be value-added to your current role rather than busy work that makes your role seem over-staffed.

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This can be a serious issue. I was previously in a similar situation where I had to perform an automated set of tasks on a number of high-volume systems, and there would be times where for 30-40 minutes at a time I had nothing else to do until they were completed.

My boss at the time would criticize me for "periods of inactivity" because he couldn't understand that I simply had no way to further speed up the process and had no other work to do at that specific time. In hindsight, I think he and everyone else on my team were always behind on their work and couldn't conceive of me not being behind and having no more work to do until another job came in.

Assuming you really don't have other work you could do (documenting/improving certain processes, etc.) I'd suggest the following:

  1. If you have a flexible lunch hour, take an early/late lunch as needed.

  2. Take a break away from your desk. Take a walk around another floor or leave the building if necessary. A visitor would not necessarily expect you to be at your desk 100% of the time, so they are likely to assume you are just on a normal break.

  3. Avoid sitting at your desk while not typing or talking on the phone, and browsing the internet. These are the types of activity that will draw the attention of your boss and/or visitors.

  4. Offer to work with another member of your team or another team, either mentoring a newer employee or learning from a more senior member.

  5. Come up with a special project or career development goal that would benefit you in your current role or a desired future role. Even if you are reading a tech/business/service book and taking notes/working through examples, people are more likely to assume you are engaged in work-related activity, which is key. For example, you could offer to research a new technology or other topic, ostensibly to brief your team or boss later. My personal experience was that reading through an actual book was looked on more favorably than reading the same material on a web page.

  6. See if there is some work you might have otherwise done earlier that is not time-sensitive and could be delayed until you have downtime.

  7. Talk with your boss about some of the activities you're considering, so that he has a good answer about what you're doing if he's asked. This will help him avoid losing face.

  8. Avoid cleaning or other activities that could appear to be busywork. These can often give someone the impression that you are wasting time, even if you're not.

I would also recommend avoiding doing anything that depends on who is or is not nearby. Anyone can come by and look over your shoulder or say hi at any time, and it's better if are always doing something that is job-related so that you can explain yourself, even if it's not directly related to your normal tasks. That way, if your boss's boss were to come by and ask what you are doing, you can demonstrate that you are doing something that is potentially valuable and can give a better impression.

Best of luck. It's frustrating when you have to manage someone else's impressions when it's unrelated to how you are actually performing the real work.

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    I think that most of the time people think you're doing something dubious, they won't ask you to explain yourself. – Amy Blankenship Mar 27 '13 at 21:10
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    They're probably more likely to just take away a bad impression and walk away, but I am just saying it's always better to being doing something of value than just to pretend to when you're actually doing something worthless. If you have nothing useful to do, better to just leave your desk. – JAGAnalyst Mar 27 '13 at 21:41
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From your post I understand you're a kind of administrator. In that case, in your slow time, you can improve your skills writing scripts automating and monitoring tasks.

1) It has to do with you job, you can easily prove why such script is needed for your work

2) It can improve your work in future

3) It is challenging and interesting. You can rethink new ways to do some task or learn new script languages.

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    This may backfire: I have made a script to automate checking my backups, APT-GET status (and auto update), RAID status, Memory usage, Disk usage, CPU usage, Process usage, open Samba connections, and the last 15 lines of my logs, and it emails me once a day to my Inbox. Now, I don't get to say "Checking the server status" and take 10 minutes, just 1 minute. But still, +1 – Canadian Luke Oct 9 '13 at 22:54
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    Though, if you build a good enough suite of tools, that may help with job security by keeping you around for maintenance. – Tyzoid Aug 31 '15 at 21:15
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Talk to your boss, first of all. And ask if, in slow times, you would be allowed to take some online training/read articles and the like to better your knowledge base. I know that I learned quite a bit during slow times at a previous job by browsing microsoft technet articles, and doing codeacademy training (i'm in IT, so I don't have a ton of actual coding experience). Not only does it keep you from contemplating the exact spiny-ness of your chair, but it also improves both you and the company!!

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My office just went through something like this and thankfully the management team was reasonable about it. Simply put, if there's no work you log that you have no work and you try to do something productive but not disruptive. When I say "productive" in this instance, I mean productive for YOU. Organize your stuff, clean your desk. If you're curious about some tech stuff, then read some blogs. Maybe do some Udemy or Pluralsite. Professional development, in my opinion, is the best go-to for burning time. Sometimes, I'll go over to the sales team, and ask some questions about the platform. The vast majority of the time, they're more than happy to talk because having the bridge to the developers, stepping outside the silo, can really help with team cohesion and communication. Sometimes I'll just speak to people outside the development team to get a sense of what they do. Most people, if they're not busy, are more than happy to expand on their role or the context of a project.

The management side of things just wants us to log the time we're not working. It's important because it allows them to measure our time and what's available. So logging busy work or extending tasks makes no sense. If you want more work, be efficient. Sometimes there will be slow periods but the idea is that as long as the metrics are there for management to understand the capabilities of the team they can take on new projects / opportunities. Which is what our team wants. They want more work but they need to be careful about how much they take on, so knowing how much we output is important.

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With 'browse the internet' your boss does not mean go shop for a new pair of socks or go hang out on facebook.

Read articles that are related to your job position, follow tutorials, answer questions on stack-exchange, learn about new techniques or software. That is what he means with 'browse the internet'.

Personally I also try to use these moments to organise my workflow. Clean up documents I have, look at the backlog, come up with plans and strategies to tackle previous issues. I usually casually mention to teammates that I have some time to discuss problems they ran into or have time to review their work as well. We have a slack channel dedicated to sharing interesting articles as well so I read through that or add some of my own when I have a slow moment.

I agree that tasks such as cleaning the kitchen give out the message that you are slacking off and have no work to do. It's also just completely unrelated to your job description and that raises red flags with people.

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