Karolina Numminen
A cup of coffee.

What to Do When Things Are Quiet at Work

Pushing long hours in busy times is familiar and doable for most of us. But often, when the need to hustle is gone, we feel a bit lost. Here we are, constantly wishing for a break, yet when it does happen, we're confused about what to do. 

Quieter times are common, and most knowledge workers have experienced this situation in their jobs. A lack of things to do can arise from seasonal industry shifts, economic variations, or simply a gap between projects, as is often seen in consultancy roles.

It might feel uncomfortable to acknowledge you don’t have much to do, especially in our culture of continuous grind. But these calm moments can bring so much value! You can focus on reevaluating workflows, learning new skills, participating in an out-of-scope project, or mentoring junior colleagues.

In today’s article, I’m showing you how to constructively navigate quiet work periods and turn this 'positive problem' into time well-spent. 

1. Don’t hide

Sometimes having too much free time at work can feel like a dark secret. It can be tempting to hide this reality, especially if others seem to be snowed under their work, And so you might work from home more to avoid curious glances or spend in-office hours perfecting the art of looking busy.

This approach is not only mentally exhausting (fearing someone will find out eventually) but equally unproductive for you and your team.

Instead: Be Open

The first step to navigating the quiet times well is being open about your situation with your boss and team. Choosing your wording can help you address this well. Instead of ‘’I have nothing to do’’, let your team know you are available: offer a helping hand or suggest a new project to your supervisor. 

By being open, you might discover that others are in the same situation and start gathering a team for a new project. Your quiet time could then easily turn into a career progression. 

2. Don’t panic

The sudden lack of tasks can create a mini internal crisis, causing doubts about our role or concerns about the company’s stability. You may feel uncertain and worried, which almost certainly prevents you from getting anything useful done. 

Remember that having a little downtime is very common and doesn’t necessarily mean your role, the company, or the economy is doomed. Sometimes, being without tasks can be a very positive sign. Perhaps you were exceptionally efficient with your project and finished ahead of schedule. So don’t jump to conclusions without properly evaluating the situation first.

Instead: Grasp the Situation

There is no reason to panic until you know what’s going on. Talk to different people in your company and try to find out the scope of the situation- is it just you, your team, or your department, or is it a company-wide thing? Talk to people who have been in the company longer to see if this might be actually common.

Thinking about worst-case scenarios can become a full-time job on its own, clouding your judgement and ability to spend time on something useful. So once you clear your worries, you can start planning your next steps.

3. Don’t spend time door-knob polishing. 

A sudden lack of tasks and the desire to be (or appear) busy can prevent being actually productive. Knowledge work doesn’t always have a clear output and so it can be easy to fill your time with pointless activities. 

These often include increasing the number of meetings you call or attend, setting new strategies, developing processes and complicated workflows (that will be forgotten the second things become busy again), or attending voluntary training in which you have 0 interest.

Instead: Choose wisely

Consider what would genuinely interest you or help you once things pick up. Learning is one common choice and can be extremely useful if done right- if you pick something you care about and devote enough hard work actually to improve your skills. 

We always have projects or tasks that we postpone until 'there's more time'- so this IS the time to jump into action. It's a good idea to keep track of possible side projects when you are busy so that you can pick them up once things get quieter.

4. Don’t Become Intrusive

Having a less busy time is an excellent opportunity to offer a helping hand. In most cases, your colleagues will be thrilled, but remember to respect their space and autonomy. It’s a great idea to make others aware of your availability and suggest where your skills might be of good use, but then simply wait for others to take you up on this offer. 

Avoid inserting yourself into projects without asking or being asked to. Your colleagues might find your unsolicited advisory annoying, which could result in bad relationships that will take a long time to repair. 

The same applies to possible mentoring efforts. Offer where and how you could help, but only go ahead with an explicit agreement of your intended mentee. Balancing eagerness with respect ensures that your contribution is welcome and effective.

5. Don’t Make it Others Responsibility

While some people hide during quiet times, others get frustrated and are loud and clear about the situation. Although having nothing to do can be annoying, especially when it lasts long, I don’t recommend turning into a bored child who demands others figure out what to do. 

It’s one thing to let others know you have the capacity to help out, and another to wait with your arms folded, wondering why the genius that you are has to sit on the bench.

You might run into the risk that your boss pulls out the neglected-for-years tasks, annoying clients, or dead-end projects. You might soon regret ever bringing up your availability.

Instead: Be Proactive

Consider how you want to appear in this situation because it could make or break your career progression. It’s no secret that proactivity is essential in today’s workplace and is heavily considered when deciding promotions. 

Show that you are in control and have ideas to help your company get out of a rut. This way, you are being professional and the first candidate in line for exciting projects once they finally show up.

6. Don’t Start Job Applying Frantically

Sometimes, a lack of tasks can signal things going south in your company. And sometimes, looking for something new can be the correct answer. What isn’t the correct answer is sending out your CV left and right without properly evaluating the current situation and thinking about the next step.

Such job search efforts often fall flat anyway because recruiters can sniff that there is no genuine interest from your side and you are just trying to escape. 

Instead: Pause, Think, THEN Act

Having more time on your hands can be a wonderful opportunity to pause and think about your next career steps, not from a place of despair but from a place of being ready for something new. 

So before putting that 'open to work' on, think about what you are really open to. What would be more than just 'better than having nothing to do'. 

If the lack of tasks lasts long-term, it could signal more profound changes in your field that require you to reskill. So, it's crucial to evaluate the situation well and come up with the right plan to move forward.

Karolina Numminen

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Summary 

Quieter work periods are normal and can provide a lot of value if approached well. Once you know the scope of the situation, dispel worries, and think about how to spend this time, you are ready to use it to your best benefit. 

Instead of hiding, panicking, or wasting time on pointless tasks, see this time as a chance to refine skills, contribute meaningfully, and prepare for busier days ahead. 

Stay proactive, and let others know how you can help. Don’t just try to fill the void; use these moments for personal and professional growth. Remember, slow periods aren't signs of your inefficiency and don't last forever, so make the best of it while it lasts.

Karolina Numminen
Author:
Karolina Numminen

Hi there!

Thank you for reading! I'm Karolina, a career coach with a passion for helping people have fulfilling and successful career journeys. I love writing about all things work and sharing the insights I’ve gained from years of coaching clients.

I would love to connect with you on LinkedIn and continue the conversation. I’m always curious about different professions and career paths!

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