much ado about nuthin'.
April 28, 2011 4:04 PM   Subscribe

What do you do in your downtime in the office?

I've been a freelancer for about 90% of my career in my current profession (this is a span of about 10 years). I'm currently a few days into a new 3 month contract working in a creative department for a global sportswear manufacturer—and I am hoping it will turn into a longer contract or, ideally, a full-time gig because it's a great company to work for and I really like my boss a lot. I want to impress him so that will happen. However, as with new people, and also probably because there's just some downtime right now in the department (and I realize there will be crazy manic times of non-stop work as well), I just haven't had a whole lot to do so far. I have been given a couple of small projects which I have finished rather quickly and I am told I will be given more…in the meantime though, I've spent the bulk of my days so far with nothing really to do, except cruise the internet, reading my email, the company's news/blog, the news, askme, and facebook.

I've asked both my boss and our Art Director a few times throughout the day if they have anything for me; I also ask the other two designers, but usually there's nothing. One reply from the Art Director was, "Oh, you can just chill for a bit until we get something for you." Except…what should I be doing? When I asked one of the other designers if he had anything I could help with, he said no, and that it was actually pretty slow for him right now as well since one of his projects got killed so he was just gonna be cleaning up his files and watching Youtube. I don't want to appear as though I'm purposely being unproductive by surfing the internets, but there's really nothing else for me to be doing. I'm especially self-conscious about it because the room our department is in is totally open, with no cubicles and my desk sits right outside my bosses office so he could look out his door and see exactly what is happening on my computer screen (the other departments screens face the window so no can see what they're doing).

When I got hired for this job, I was told that my boss really liked me and my work a lot, and I want to keep it that way, so what are your suggestions for what to do during downtime in the office?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (30 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
Work on your portfolio/personal projects. Write a book. Write letters. Learn a programming language. Code an app for your office. Make a single-serving website. Learn Mandarin, or Farsi. There are a zillion things you can be doing to improve yourself or be productive, be it for yourself or in service to your employer.
Ok, now to follow my own advice. 1—2—3— GO!
posted by carsonb at 4:12 PM on April 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

Is there anything you can do by way of organizing your space? Whether it's files or even just making sure the office supply cabinet is neat and easy to use can make a big difference.

Also, if you're doing design work can you do "practice" projects?
posted by too bad you're not me at 4:12 PM on April 28, 2011

I answer AskMe questions.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 4:12 PM on April 28, 2011 [12 favorites]

My suggestion is to savor it.

Seriously, though, how about taking your Art Director out for coffee? Hopefully it will be seen for what it is, an effort to get to know your colleagues and their role in the company, but you'll also get an insider perspective and maybe some other ideas of what you could be doing.

Other things; maybe sign up for one of the MIT Open Courseware topics, or watch TED talks, or brush up on some technical skills? Check out some of the new books in your field from the library and read through those?
posted by stellaluna at 4:13 PM on April 28, 2011 [2 favorites]

Are there industry publications/sites you could be reading? If I had downtime in my job, for example, I might read an eBook on marketing or trends or a forum about shopping.
posted by kate blank at 4:14 PM on April 28, 2011 [2 favorites]

Seriously though - I have a side project that I work on in the down time. I do favours for friends (that look like work). I organise my office.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 4:14 PM on April 28, 2011

This doesn't sound like downtime, but dead time. You aren't taking a breather between meetings, you have nothing to do.

Because you don't have the history in the office, you don't have anything to tidy, and you may not be able to slack, even if the boss says "chill."

Are there any little office chores to do? Things to file, collate, sort or whatnot? One bit of caution - you don't want to become the person who cleans office junk.

If you really think there's a chance you could be penalized for not working when there is no work to do, tell your boss you'd love to help however you can, but it seems there is nothing to do at the moment, so you'll be doing [something productive online - see other comments], to prepare for [future work thing], but you're available to pick up and work on anything at any time.
posted by filthy light thief at 4:17 PM on April 28, 2011

If you want to look businessy without actually doing work, the Kindle app looks like Microsoft Word.
posted by something something at 4:26 PM on April 28, 2011

Think about whether or not there is some little chore or tool of task or thing that it would be GREAT to take care of before the next wave of work hits. Perhaps installing a mundane software tool, or writing a bit of code to make something function better. Now is the time to take care of those little things that slow you down during production if they're left undone.
posted by cleverevans at 4:30 PM on April 28, 2011

When I worked at my last full-time writing position/med com company, I was a writer and convinced the editor to create a class for myself and the other writers. We loved it, as it helped us to improve the final product. The person who taught the class not only presented the material to us, but she created material/files that we could access on the server for each class -- in PPT and in word.

You could ask the writers if they want a similar course? And/or create documents to help them the information out? I know that my boss reacted well to the proposal and to the idea that we took and participated in this class.
posted by Wolfster at 4:41 PM on April 28, 2011

Not thinking clearly when I posted, but is there an interesting among other departments for learning what you do?Or the reverse? Can a class be started? Materials created?
posted by Wolfster at 4:45 PM on April 28, 2011

Work on my math through Khan Academy.
posted by spinifex23 at 4:50 PM on April 28, 2011 [4 favorites]

Do some sketching, some kind of middle ground style between your personal interests and the kind of thing that is done at this office?
posted by sammyo at 5:27 PM on April 28, 2011

Things I have done at work that weren't specifically assigned work:
Balanced my checkbook.
Wrote my wedding thank you cards.
Shopped online.
Labeled almost every damn drawer and cabinet in the building. (I'm dangerous with a label maker.)
Gone through processes and procedures to see if they're efficient and well-organized (I've mainly worked in a lab environment, so there's always some procedure that can be done better or faster.)
Read H.P. Lovecraft stories and scared myself shitless.
Played Snood.
Chatted with friends on the other side of the world (when I worked nights).
Write to do lists, grocery lists, etc.
Answer AskMe questions.
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 5:29 PM on April 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

Just be careful - there's a fine line between letting them know you're eager for more tasks and making them feel like camp counselors struggling to keep a bored kid busy. In the future, instead of completing tasks double-time and having big blocks of space where they see you endlessly facebooking (or, god forbid, doing yoga!), try to stretch things out a bit so you look busy, but available. Try to be always almost done, if that makes sense. It shouldn't matter, but it does.
posted by moxiedoll at 5:43 PM on April 28, 2011 [3 favorites]

Find something that needs fixing and figure out how to fix it. (This is how I got by at my current gig for the first year and a half or so until I proved that I could slack off because I'd bust my ass when something needed to be done.)

Other things I do now: read books (I work in a library, so this isn't quite as off as it sounds), do sudoku puzzles, research random things/get lost in a wikipedia hole, do schoolwork, make to do lists, plan vacations, etc.
posted by sperose at 6:12 PM on April 28, 2011

As a very productive intern at a magazine last summer I often found myself without anything to do for the majority of the day so I started loaning myself out to other departments to help them with the stuff they do. Obviously this was with the permission of my mentor, but it was a great way to learn how to interface with different people and provide services to those I otherwise wouldn't have met without the downtime that I had. I also spent a lot of time developing my portfolio and futzing around with office stationery; in the end, someone noticed my tweaking and I was asked to redesign interdepartmental letterheads, our staff directory, and a number of other company materials that helped me fill the gaps between regular art projects. :)
posted by patronuscharms at 6:28 PM on April 28, 2011

I do research on long term projects and "keep current" with technology by compulsively refreshing Hacker News and
posted by Ad hominem at 6:58 PM on April 28, 2011

From the OP:
Thanks for your suggestions so far—keep them coming! I do spend time looking through the department's archives to see what they have been doing. i also read the company's news/blog to familiarize myself more with what is going on within the company in general.

I'm pretty much brand new so there is nothing for me to organize in my space. I have a desk and a drawer unit with pretty much nothing on/in it. I have no files, because I haven't really been given much in the way of work yet. I have lunch with the others in my department so we socialize then. My boss is usually in meetings most days, and otherwise really busy. I'm a designer and I don't code. In fact, anything that has to do with technical matters for any department is, across the board, handled by another department.

For those suggesting starting up or otherwise attending some class/course, this isn't doable as I need to be available and on hand when a project is given to me. As for asking other groups in the department, everyone is sort of doing their thing—people here are pretty specialized.

With regard to working on my own side projects—I don't think that, as I am a contractor, my boss and/or the company would appreciate that they are paying me to work on personal/side projects.
posted by jessamyn at 7:07 PM on April 28, 2011

It sounds like you have the kind of work ethic that makes you feel bad about doing anything on work time that isn't of benefit to the company. So look for ways you can benefit the company. If there are truly no projects to help with, then your mission is to find ways to make your future work go better. Read industry news. Practice some skill that will be useful in your work. Learn to use the less-common features and shortcuts in any software that you use for work. I know you don't have any files yet, but you can figure out where the file folders and labels are, and get your drawer set up in a way that will let you have a place for your papers when you get them. If other departments have documentation you can read, read it so you know what your colleagues do. You seem dead-set against the idea of learning to code because it's not your area, but having even a small working knowledge of programming and the terminology behind it could make you a lot more valuable to the company -- even if that's not the work you do, you will be much more effective at communicating with the technical people who do handle those tasks. If your closest coworkers are similarly not-busy, pick their brains about work: what are the worst things that have happened on past projects (and how could those problems be avoided next time), who do you need to have as an ally around the office, what do they do with their downtime, do they feel the need to hide the YouTube-ing from the boss even though there's nothing to do, etc.
posted by vytae at 7:37 PM on April 28, 2011

Read industry news, etc. The company probably gets some magazines you can read. This is often an expected and encouraged use of downtime. And it makes you more attractive as a long-term hire.

I'm also a big fan of cleaning and organizing and making systems/storage/whatever more convenient. I find it satisfying and, hey, it's something to do.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:44 PM on April 28, 2011

A few suggestions:

I suspect that your coworkers may have a list of low-priority tasks that need to be done but they never find the time to do them. Ask around--you might be able to find something to do that has been at the back of someone's mind for months that will keep you busy, give you an insight into part of the business you may not know anything about, and take the burden off of somebody else. For example, my backlog of low-priority tickets

Figure out what other projects are coming up and what skills will be needed to complete them. If you don't have those skills, now is an excellent time to research and learn while you're not under the gun to produce something.

Review internal documentation and rewrite it. Everything is probably several versions behind, and that's optimistic.
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 10:36 PM on April 28, 2011

Brush up and augment any professional skills. Advanced tutorials on important software, reading industry publications for your own field, research into global sportswear manufacturing to give you more context, going through the current filling system, examining previous projects, compiling fact sheets for yourself on key players and facts for every aspect of the business, short informational meetings with other departments...
posted by desuetude at 10:59 PM on April 28, 2011

They've given you a three month contract but have no work lined up for you to do? Weird, but it's not your fault. Do some spec designs for whatever it is your supposed to be creative about, advertising, shoe design, whatever and though they'll never be used they might impress someone. Don't do personal stuff if your boss can see it, even if there's nothing else to do, that's not going to look good. Use the time to line up more work if you can, they're not going to hire you again if they've nothing for you.
posted by joannemullen at 11:58 PM on April 28, 2011

When my coworker and I get bored (which isn't often, we're kept very busy) or need a break, we have an origami book and do origami. We're not very good at it but it's something to keep your hands and brain engaged.
posted by IndigoRain at 1:33 AM on April 29, 2011

Improve your skillset in a way that will directly benefit the company.

Learn more about the company. Take a look at previous work the company has done and use this time to ask questions about workflow, processes, and documentation (I have never worked anywhere that has not been grateful for someone competent to take a look at their documentation).

Spend some time learning about code. It will make you a better designer (says the coder :)), even if you end up coding yourself.
posted by asnowballschance at 2:00 AM on April 29, 2011

I started a group blog with other members of my field, and down time is spent researching and writing emergency backup posts for days when the regular bloggers can't make it, looking for potential bloggers, and tweaking the site. (I do have permission to work on it during work time, as it's considered outreach.)
posted by telophase at 10:17 AM on April 29, 2011

You might find this previous thread helpful.
posted by hefeweizen at 1:46 PM on April 29, 2011

What is your job? That would help.

E.g., if your job is as your boss's assistant, I'd suggest you ensure there's a good sync between his/her inbox and calendar and your computer, and then I'd start going through his/her emails to identify filtering rules and folders.

E.g., if your job is as ... (making something up here) ... the person who writes ad copy, I'd review their last 12 projects and look for consistent phrasings, and then I'd ask what contracts they're cultivating and learn about those companies' products (?), and I'd also ask if they need help editing their RFP submittals.

Ah, you're a designer. Hopefully other designers could help out with ideas. Perhaps get all the versions of the logos in one place, assure that your desktop software is all a-okay with all the upgrades, learn where past design templates live on the network drive (in case you have to modify an existing design), ask what contracts they're cultivating and check out those companies' past ads...?

Taking others out for get-to-know-you coffees is also a great idea.
posted by salvia at 6:33 PM on April 29, 2011

I have alot of downtime at work. I also have a meticulous spending diary, savings forcast, mortgage plan, weightloss diary and holiday plans all on wicked excel spreadsheets. I am an organised sort but these simple sheets really help me in my day to day goals and finances. Excel makes it look like you are working really hard too.
posted by Neonshock at 6:35 AM on April 30, 2011

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