5 action items for career management when there is nothing to do at work

By Scot Herrick | Job Search

Jul 24

There’s a lot of nonsense advice out there when tough times come visiting companies and the threat of layoff increases. In my opinion, the biggest piece of nonsense advice is this one: Look busy, even if there is nothing to do.

If there truly is nothing to do at your work, your position is in a lot more trouble than “looking busy” will solve. Instead of “looking busy,” I’d get busy on what is needed for my career. Here’s five steps to take:

  • Inventory your job skills. Job skills are the attributes you bring to an employer to get work done. Certifications? Projects you’ve worked on? Training you’ve done?
  • Inventory your accomplishments. Your accomplishments must be presented in how they have helped the business. Simply working on a project doesn’t cut it; you need to say what working on the project did for the business.
  • Update your resume. While this is standard advice, my point in updating the resume is it forces you to succinctly state your skills and accomplishments. Writing your resume forces you to distill your work into a short synopsis of your skills.
  • Find your story. With the skills you bring to the job plus your accomplishments, you can build stories that you can tell about your work.  Getting these stories identified helps you build a case about how you are different than other candidates for a job.
  • Get out of any siege mentality. Too often, companies in trouble bring along the effect of taking their employees along for the ride. This makes sense, of course, as if your company is in trouble it is natural to feel that way as well. That feeling, however, comes across in interviews with other employers. Get enough space so that you can objectively look at your work and your company.

If your manager is any good at all, “looking busy” isn’t fooling anyone. If there’s nothing for you to do for your employer, I’d be looking out for number one.

What do you do at work when there’s nothing to do?

  • Brianna says:

    Hi Scot,
    My last boss used to feed that line to me all the time when our department “ran out of” projects to work on. “Whenever we have down time, just do your best to look busy.” The worst part was, any work I could get needed to come down the chain of command first, so there was no option to find work on my own. And I always wanted to know exactly how one looks busy – when they’re clearly not.

    So I started looking busy and found myself a new job. Great advice here! Glad you brought up this topic – it’s one that’s always gotten under my skin!

  • Drea says:

    Great post! While I worked in corporate America, I never figured out how to separate myself from the siege mentality you’re talking about. Maybe it’s a personality thing–spending 8+ hours in an environment doused in one mentality encumbered me with that same mentality, even after I went home for the day. I couldn’t get creative ideas unless I physically left the office. Understandably, lots of managers didn’t like that (perhaps things are changing in that regard). So I parted ways with the cube.

    I’m disappointed that most companies don’t address the need for alternative spaces and movement in some of their employees. After all, not everyone can sit still for eight hours, and some people actually work better when they’re antsy.

    • Scot Herrick says:

      @Drea – I always liked holding class outside! It was out of the norm and helped the creativity. The lessons we don’t learn…

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