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Should one leave a job when there is no work to do?

By istevens in Culture
Thu Mar 15, 2001 at 06:53:51 PM EST
Tags: Culture (all tags)

I haven't had any substantial work to do in my job for a few months now and it's really getting to me. The question is, in this scenario is it best to stay and reap the rewards of getting paid for doing little or no work or to leave and seek more challenging work elsewhere?

The department to which I belong deals mostly with customisations to the company product, primarily in the form of smaller applications which interact with the main product. Roughly six months ago a new version of the company's main product was released. Coincidentally, around that time requests for work from our department slowed to a trickle. As a result, I haven't had much work to do in the past few months and have been debating on whether I should quit.

When the work started to slow, I was somewhat expecting the company to let me go for several reasons. First, although our team is small I am the only member who is not in the same location as the core group. Second, our company was recently merged with another and our parent has been trying to cut costs to remain profitable. Apart from letting the duplicate administrative tasks of marketing, accounting, human resources, etc. go, we have also been letting people go in areas where more were needed (eg. professional services, development). Finally, there's that absence of work thing. If I had been let go, I would have expected to receive at least two months salary in compensation, which is why I was silently hoping the company would lay me off.

However, even after the lay-offs, I'm still here. It makes no sense to me why a company wanting to achieve profitability would keep someone on when he isn't doing much. I have asked my manager whether there was work coming down the pipe, and the response has always been along the lines of "real soon now". Ideally, I would have liked to switch to development but they let 1/4 of development go in the name of profitability when we could have made to with 1/4 more.

Contrary to what people may think, having no work to do isn't heaven-on-earth. Sure, I get to sit at home on my ass all day but there's also the feeling of uselessness and the accompanying frustration. In addition, my bonus is calculated based on how much of my time is billable to clients. No billable work equals no bonus.

What's a boy to do? I could start looking for a new job then quit but I get the feeling that the market in my city is more competitive right now so finding a challenging job I would like isn't necessarily a sure thing. On the other hand, I could stay and use the free time to work on my own mini projects. (I have already used the time to complete setting up my home network, translate my resume into XML with XSL templates and practice my Java. However, to really learn new skills I need an outside focus.) I could also stay and hope that my company lets me go, giving me the minimum two months compensation required by law in my country.

What would you do if you were in the same predicament? Have you been in this situation before? What did you do?


Voxel dot net
o Managed Hosting
o VoxCAST Content Delivery
o Raw Infrastructure


If there's no work to be done at your place of employ, would you leave?
o Yes - before they realise they don't need me 5%
o Yes - I need to keep busy and challenged 32%
o No - maybe they'll let me go soon, with compensation 8%
o No - this gives me more time to pursue personal projects 53%

Votes: 79
Results | Other Polls

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o Also by istevens

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Should one leave a job when there is no work to do? | 35 comments (32 topical, 3 editorial, 0 hidden)
Leave or risk stagnation (3.00 / 1) (#3)
by scorbett on Thu Mar 15, 2001 at 02:46:20 PM EST

If I ever found myself in a position where I was spending more time on my personal projects than on my work projects, I'd quit. Why? It would be too easy to just start coasting, showing up for work and surfing the web all day, or working on your own stuff on company time. Someone once said to me "if you ever feel guilty about taking home your paycheck, you'll know it's time to move on." Fortunately I've never been in that position.

This is pretty easy (5.00 / 6) (#4)
by DesiredUsername on Thu Mar 15, 2001 at 02:47:04 PM EST

First, start looking for another job. It's a LOT easier to find The Ideal Job while you are still recieving a paycheck.

While you are doing that, you should find something fun to do at work. It could be totally unrelated to what you should "really" be doing (which is different than being useless to the company). For instance, at a previous job I created an online internal phonebook, a linux backup print server to the primary NT one and a GGI-based windowing thing. The first two had value, the last was just playing.

If the job market doesn't bear any fruit, you probably want to hang onto what you have. So make yourself indispensible. Suggest/create new product features. Fix some broken system (the build system is ALWAYS broken). Etc.

Play 囲碁
Wow. That's a mind bender. (2.50 / 2) (#5)
by greyrat on Thu Mar 15, 2001 at 02:48:55 PM EST

It's a question I've asked myself four times in the last three years. My answer has always been 'Yes', until this job. Not that this job is any better than any of the others. It's also not that the job market is going soft. It's that I'm burned out on looking for a company that can do it right or give me the latitude to help them do it right.

Maybe I'll move this rant over to my diary...

"When in danger, or in doubt, run in circles, scream and shout." -- Robert A. Heinlein

~ ~ ~
Did I actually read the article? No. No I didn't.
"Watch out for me nobbystyles, Gromit!"

Don't do a diary (none / 0) (#25)
by cezarg on Fri Mar 16, 2001 at 01:22:17 AM EST

make an article out of it. I think you have a point. Where are those efficient no-nonsense companies? Why does every startup have to be a microsoft wannabe these days? They hire (or at least hired until the bubble burst) with little regard to economic values just to inflate the IPO price and are now paying the price. It's a topic worth exploring... I really miss those fifteen person companies that I started my career with. There seems to be very few of them anymore (usually got swallowed by a big corp). Anyway you write about it... I can't be bothered :).

[ Parent ]
Same here (3.00 / 2) (#6)
by Egore on Thu Mar 15, 2001 at 02:49:56 PM EST

I'm in practically the same boat as you are. I come to work each day and only work about half of the day. There never really seems to be any solid work to get done, it's all real quick, 15 or 20 hour projects, followed by a 15 or 20 hour block of nothing to do before the next job comes my way. I now find that, when people come to ask for my opinion on something, I try to weasel my way into helping them with more than they ask for so that I'm not just sitting here taking up space.

I'm really curious about how common this is for programmers, or if I just have been dealt a bad deal.

- Alex

+1 FP, BTW

Work at home? (2.00 / 1) (#7)
by reshippie on Thu Mar 15, 2001 at 02:51:06 PM EST

Perhaps that's part of your unhappiness. I have a very easy job too, in fact, I spend most of my time here, or on /. . But I've found that the people I work with are really cool, so it's not so bad.

I have been shuffled a few times, and each time I think about leaving, but eventually I get to know the people around me, and I'm cool with things. Perhaps you'd be happier in the actual office, with others around you.

Those who don't know me, probably shouldn't trust me. Those who do DEFINITELY shouldn't trust me. :-)

Personal experience (2.50 / 2) (#8)
by ucblockhead on Thu Mar 15, 2001 at 02:51:56 PM EST

I was in roughly in your position once. I was a contractor and was expected to be there 40/hours per week but only had 10/hours a week of work to do.

In terms of ethics, as long as you tell your manager you have little or nothing to do, you have no ethical dilema. It is not your job to prevent them from making stupid positions.

In terms of career, I agree with others. You are in great risk of stagnation. Get the hell out. But find the job first, then quit.
This is k5. We're all tools - duxup

My status (4.00 / 2) (#9)
by retinaburn on Thu Mar 15, 2001 at 03:04:24 PM EST

I currently am working on a 16 month internship at a MAJOR software and hardware company (its blue and big) and am in 2nd year of university. Being an intern in I don't expect to be given 'important' assignments nor do I expect to be constantly busy.

There have been stretches of up to three weeks were I clocked 80 hours of 'administrative time' because my co-worked were too busy to assign a task or to explain it in enough detail for me to do work. I tell friends this and they all say 'Oh boo hoo your getting paid 100 bucks canadian a day to surf the net'. But I agree entirely with you that this isn't 'blissful'...its mind numbing.

Things have taken a turn for the better, my co-workers trust me more and are giving me tasks (including important devel. jobs) mainly in Perl to work on and complete.

WR to your situation I would start looking for a more interesting job while coninuing to work. Also see if there is any room for 'lateral' movement within the company. I know it can be hard to 'invent' projects to learn new skills but this is one of the better ways to learn new languages and tweak your knowledge in existing ones.

I think that we are a young species that often fucks with things we don't know how to unfuck. -- Tycho

Being paid to do nothing useful (none / 0) (#19)
by jesterzog on Thu Mar 15, 2001 at 05:07:54 PM EST

I tell friends this and they all say 'Oh boo hoo your getting paid 100 bucks canadian a day to surf the net'. But I agree entirely with you that this isn't 'blissful'...its mind numbing.

I definitely agree with what you've said here. On several occasions during breaks between studying, I've ended up in temping types of jobs that were more the result of me ringing up to ask for work than for me applying to their request for someone.

The problem wasn't so much that the work wasn't very highly qualified. It was that often there wasn't much work to do. It was awkward showing up day after day knowing that I was probaably going to be doing fairly useless things in front of the other people there, until someone was able to come up with anything that needed doing.

The up-side to it was that I spent lots of time not having to think for someone else, and during this time I'd be coming up with my own ideas for projects to work on later in my spare time. It wasn't exactly fun going to work, though.

jesterzog Fight the light

[ Parent ]
Me, too (3.00 / 1) (#10)
by weirdling on Thu Mar 15, 2001 at 03:09:05 PM EST

Right now, my project is in test phase, which means I could spen upwards of fifteen minutes a day doing real work, the rest of the time on eBay, k5 and whatever else strikes my fancy.
My solution: I'm trying to start my own company. When I get idled, it takes a lot of effort to get working again when given a new project...

I'm not doing this again; last time no one believed it.
Projects (4.00 / 2) (#11)
by tnt on Thu Mar 15, 2001 at 03:13:07 PM EST

If your contract allows it, I'd probably suggest that you work on your own project(s). You could even work on one of the many (existing) free and open source projects out there.

Personally, I'd like to have that situation. I have my own projects (including matterial, a free and open source project I am [and others are] working on), and having that situation would seem ideal to me.

For me (right now), it seems really difficult to find free time to work on my own projects (including matterial). My weekends are usually spent relaxing, and playing sports... I try to say off the computer and off the Internet on the weekends. So the only time I have to work on my own stuff is during the week... which is usually pretty busy.

If getting your bonus isn't a big deal, and your regular salary is sufficient [and your contract allows for it], then go ahead and explore your own areas of interest.

     Charles Iliya Krempeaux, B.Sc.
  Kuro5hin user #279

employment contracts (2.00 / 1) (#12)
by jesterzog on Thu Mar 15, 2001 at 03:22:01 PM EST

I'm not 100% sure how it works in the US (and I'm making a blind assumption that that's where you're from).

In New Zealand, one of the things about employment contracts is that they're usually as much of a contract for an employer to provide work as they are for an employee to do the work.

Usually this is more relevant in professions like acting, when a person't career is directly relevant to the work they get, but it looks like it might be important in your situation too.

It might be worth checking your contract for something like this. If they won't give you work based on that, think seriously about looking for another job. They'd be in breach of contract.

jesterzog Fight the light

The wheel turns (5.00 / 2) (#13)
by jabber on Thu Mar 15, 2001 at 03:38:58 PM EST

And we are lucky if it doesn't crush us when it does.

For months (6 of them) I had practically nothing to do. The next phase of my project was so far up in the adminisphere that I thought it would never come back down. I had to keep 'looking busy' all the while sitting on my hands and doing little of actual value.

Then suddenly, someone somewhere made up their mind, and now I get to look forward to a year of such spastic effort that I don't know if stagnation wasn't preferable to the impending death march.

Keep making money while you explore your options. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, as they say. If you find something good, great! Run to it.

But do try to keep your mind active while your workplace is in stand-by. Idle stupor is a real hard thing to shake off.

[TINK5C] |"Is K5 my kapusta intellectual teddy bear?"| "Yes"

Are you on crack? (2.00 / 2) (#14)
by Zeram on Thu Mar 15, 2001 at 03:51:25 PM EST

Most people would kill to be in your situation, espically the way that the economies of most of the worlds nations are in a slide. Unless your sanity is seriously at risk, milk it for all it's worth!
Like Anime? In the Philly metro area? Welcome to the machine...
"Retainer" is the word you're looking fo (4.00 / 2) (#15)
by seebs on Thu Mar 15, 2001 at 04:25:04 PM EST

In many jobs, the cost of training a new person in to do the work will be high enough that it's more cost-effective to keep someone around who only works occasionally.

e.g., a friend of mine spent a year or two working as a bowling alley repair tech. He "worked" for maybe half an hour per 4-hour shift... but that was fine, because his job was to be there *already* when something broke, so that it would only be half an hour before it was working, rather than two or three.

It's not unthinkable that this is intentional on their part.

Heh (1.00 / 1) (#16)
by k5er on Thu Mar 15, 2001 at 04:33:26 PM EST

I have the same problem, and it just got worse. I work at Celestica and in the particular plant I work at, they have shut down the manufacturing lines for 2-3 weeks while they re-organize everything. My shifts are 12 boring hours, so last week and this week I didn't even bother going to work. I feel like I can spend my time doing more productive things than sitting around doing absolutely *nothing*...literally. Most of the staff just hangs out playing cards in the cafeteria. Even before all this commotion took place, there was little to do. I am definitely leaving that place in about 2 months...Once my Visa is payed off! :-)
Long live k5, down with CNN.
Start looking straight away (4.80 / 5) (#17)
by hugorune on Thu Mar 15, 2001 at 04:56:49 PM EST

First you will be a lot better off looking for a new job while you are still getting paid. If you can't figure out why you haven't been laid off yet, perhaps someone else will come to the same conclusion. You can be much more choosy about jobs if you can still pay your bills.

Secondly, a prospective new employer will be more impressed if you are looking for work because you are not challenged. They would be much less impressed if you waited until you were laid off and had to explain that you did nothing productive for the last few months.
Phil Harrison
Where do you work? (1.00 / 2) (#20)
by /dev/trash on Thu Mar 15, 2001 at 05:48:09 PM EST

Do you happen to work for Shared Medical?

Updated 02/20/2004
New Site
Work is its own reward.. (1.50 / 2) (#21)
by Greggbert on Thu Mar 15, 2001 at 05:51:27 PM EST

If there is no rewarding work you will soon find yourself mind numbingly bored. Get out while the getting's good. Your always more employable when currently employed so strike while the iron is hot !
If you don't understand anything that I have posted, please accept that I ate paste as a small child...
A few suggestions (4.50 / 2) (#22)
by Keepiru on Thu Mar 15, 2001 at 08:12:54 PM EST

You're in a good situation. I would recommend that you do a few things, though:

Keep discussions with your manager going. Make sure they know that you're available, and eager to take projects. It sounds like they know, but you want to be sure.

See if there are miscellaneous projects you can work on. Sometimes other departments will be ecstatic to have someone who can help out with small jobs that normally get deprioritized into oblivion. I personally have a whole stack of one day jobs that I need to get done at work that I just don't have time to take care of. This will give you opportunity for a whole range of challenges.

Polish up your resume and circulate it. Be completely honest with employeers if they ask you for an interview: it sounds like you're fairly satisfied with what your job is, but you're just feeling underutilized, and are looking for more of a challenge; tell them so. Be sure to say that you're not looking to jump ship except in the case of an exceedingly good offer, if that's the truth: that way, they won't be disappointed if you decline them, and YOU may end up receiving an offer of more (salary, better conditions, etc) than you expected. Even if you decline them, this will give you contacts in case you do get laid off. Even if you decline an offer, if the job req is still open, and you call back a month later and offer to take them up on their previous offer, they'll probably be happy to write you out the same offer letter with a new date stamp on top.

Pursue personal projects. Gods know that I have plenty of personal projects that I've been letting sit idle. Be careful, though: frequently, your employment contract may have pitfalls in it in this regard. Don't use your company's computers to produce personal projects. It sounds like you telecommute, which makes this a lot easier. Make sure there aren't any intellectual property pitfalls in your contract. Take a copy to a lawyer if you're not sure.


Heh, why choose? (5.00 / 3) (#23)
by joto on Thu Mar 15, 2001 at 10:38:52 PM EST

Get another job where you can either telecommute or work at home, and start doing that at your current workplace. That way, you can get paid for two jobs while only doing one. Sounds like a good deal to me...

sounds good, but... (4.00 / 1) (#31)
by steven on Sat Mar 17, 2001 at 09:44:29 PM EST

...depending on the employment contract, couldn't both companies have/demand rights to the work you do while working for them? It could get a bit messy :)


[ Parent ]

A (Rather Wimpy) Argument for Waiting (3.00 / 1) (#24)
by matildaben on Fri Mar 16, 2001 at 12:38:59 AM EST

I was in exactly that position. Even though morale was miserable (you really do start to hate going in to work if all you do is browse the net all day), we used the downtime to do lots of self-directed training and margarita bitch sessions. After a few months, the company laid us all off. The benefit of this is that I got a month-and-a-half vacation courtesy of state Unemployment Insurance (admittedly, not as much as a developer makes, but if you've ever been a starving student, it's cushy by comparison) and the cashout of all the vacation hours I'd accrued. If you find a new job and quit you probably won't get that much of a vacation. Maybe you could strongly hint to your manager that you'd be willing to be at the top of the list for the next round of layoffs.

But your mileage may vary. Good luck!


Fill out your resume while you have the chance (4.80 / 5) (#26)
by Pseudonym on Fri Mar 16, 2001 at 01:47:30 AM EST

Most people would kill to be in your position.

Use the time for professional development. Work on personal projects, existing open source projects, learn a new programming language, experiment with a new protocol or tool...

After all, if you find you do want to change jobs, it'll be better for you if you have a fuller resume.

sub f{($f)=@_;print"$f(q{$f});";}f(q{sub f{($f)=@_;print"$f(q{$f});";}f});
Time for jobhunting.. (4.66 / 3) (#27)
by stormie on Fri Mar 16, 2001 at 06:51:31 AM EST

Sure, I get to sit at home on my ass all day but there's also the feeling of uselessness and the accompanying frustration.

Mate, I know exactly what you mean here. I've been in a similar situation, and while it IS fun for a while to come to work, kick back, read Slashdot, make phone calls, etc., and pick up a fat paycheque at the end of the week - the fun doesn't last, and is ultimately destructive.

From your mention of "uselessness" and "frustration", I suspect you're already well past the fun stage. 9-to-5 is a long time when you have to keep yourself occupied for lack of work. And the dangerous thing is, the longer it goes on, the more likely you are to slide into a sort of decay where you just don't have the necessary enthusiasm to pull yourself out. It is, in a very real sense of the word, depressing to have a job with nothing to do.

I could start looking for a new job then quit but I get the feeling that the market in my city is more competitive right now so finding a challenging job I would like isn't necessarily a sure thing.

Remember, you're in the enviable situation where you can look for a new job without NEEDING one. Hunt around. Be picky. If you don't find a good job quickly, that's OK, you just sit at your current job and KEEP LOOKING! Trust me, job-hunting is SO much more bearable when you're sitting on your ass at work than when you're at home, spending your savings and running up credit card debts. I've done both. :-)

On the other hand, I could stay and use the free time to work on my own mini projects.

A worthy idea, and one which I pursued. I taught myself Perl and Python while in my bone-idle job situation. But as you say, it can be hard to focus on something like that without a good reason. If you feel like you've exhausted the possibilities of using your job as a base for self-learning, again, time to go, before you get (more) depressed.

I could also stay and hope that my company lets me go, giving me the minimum two months compensation required by law in my country.

I'd advise against it. It might happen, it might not, and even if it does, sure, you get the cash, but then you're jobhunting with the "I NEED a job" attitude, rather than the more relaxed one you could take now. Next thing you know you've accepted a job that's only OK, not great. Nah, I say, start looking now.

Hope that helps!

My job is similar right now. (3.50 / 2) (#28)
by Mantrid on Fri Mar 16, 2001 at 09:21:50 AM EST

I'm the IT guy, but we haven't done any new implementations lately - nothing is changing so there are rarely any problems to fix. So I've been a real slacker for awhile - on the other hand there was plenty of extra time put in for a few years before that (all nighters even the odd time, etc).

For my job anyways, I take the slow periods as they come, resting up for the fast stuff. The problem with extended slow periods I'm finding is that it slowly becomes harder to get things done when they do need to be done again.

If I figured this would continue indefinitely I would probably find a new job, but I know there's some stuff on the horizon that's going to make things more interesting again. Drives me nuts though, days with little to do drag on and on, where as if I'm busy the days go much quicker.

Does it seem like your job will ever pick up? If so, enjoy the time you have and try and do some professional development. If not, use the time you have to find a more interesting job before your brain turns to jello :)

My advice (3.00 / 1) (#29)
by ZanThrax on Fri Mar 16, 2001 at 07:15:08 PM EST

Well either attempt to do this, or start looking for something more fulfilling. If you're primary concern is that you aren't doing anything constructive, engage in personal projects or find an interesting os project to help. If, however, you're more concerned that the comapany is expending resources on you when you aren't contributing anything, start looking for a position where you can be useful.

Before flying off the handle over the suggestion that your a cocksucker, be sure that you do not, in fact, have a cock in your mouth.

Yes, I've been in that situation... (4.33 / 3) (#30)
by AzTex on Fri Mar 16, 2001 at 10:28:24 PM EST

...but look at me now!

Yes, I was in that situation for a long time where I had nothing to do for weeks or a even a whole month once.  What did I do?  I learned Java!

In the time I was sitting on my ass at work, I went from knowing almost nothing about Java to being competent enough that I am now the technical lead for a Java project!  And got a fair pay raise to boot.

solipsism: I'm always here. But you sometimes go away.
** AzTex **

sounds like highschool. (3.00 / 1) (#32)
by steven on Sat Mar 17, 2001 at 09:48:47 PM EST

long periods of boredom, and the occasional flury of activity. the trouble is, i don't get paid for being bored. yet.


Ideal opportunity, dont blow it... (none / 0) (#33)
by jester69 on Tue Mar 20, 2001 at 10:46:13 AM EST

You have an ideal situation here.

You can become more valulable to your present employer by using your time to learn more... As others have mentioned, take something you arent good at and learn it! This benifits your company while you are there, and you when looking for a job (or if you should end up getting laid off you have more marketable skills..)

Also, be looking for a job... But dont quit. Its infinitely easier to get a new job while you are employed. I'm not sure why this is, but its kind of like some people find people who are in a relationship more attractive. I guess having a job is proof that you can hold down a job. If you are unemployed companies can start to wonder if you are a discipline problem, lazy etc... They wonder why you arent working and if they cant come up with a good reason may pass for someone they can hire away from another company.

So to sum up:
1) use your time to learn, learn learn!
2) Look for something better, you never have to tell your employer you are looking (dont allow anyone to ask anyone at your CO for references) & if you do run into something better take it, if not keep learning until you have to find something better.

All MHO,


Its a lemming thing, Jeep owners would understand.
Leave, leave, leave! (none / 0) (#34)
by Office Girl the Magnificent on Mon Apr 02, 2001 at 05:11:56 PM EST

I was in a similar position -- except that I was a "temp" and knew they could terminate me at any time -- they just didn't want to. My company, too, had just undergone a merger, and VP's were dropping left and right. But they wouldn't get rid of me, because I was cheaper than a full-timer.

I left, and here's why. Since I already had a fairly high-paying job, a college degree, and office experience, I was able to find a job that I really, really enjoy for comparable pay, better benefits, and with a shorter commute. I was able to start halfway up the pay scale for my position without having any senority at my new workplace. I could take my choice of jobs because I wasn't jobless and desparate. And a person with a job is much more attractive to employers than someone who's been laid off.

So, for what it's worth, I say "Leave, but take your time." If they're not going to terminate you, just keep taking the check every Friday, and meanwhile, use all that free time to go on interviews and read the classifieds. No matter how competitive the market is, there's going to be something out there that will make you happier, even if it requires a slight pay cut. You sound like the kind of person who won't be happy with yourself in five years if you stay where you are. Go for it, dude.

"If you stay, Infinite might try to kill you. If you leave, the FBI definitely will. And if you keep yelling, I might do it myself."

UPDATE: I got laid off! (none / 0) (#35)
by istevens on Wed Apr 25, 2001 at 11:48:17 PM EST

There is an update to this article in one of my diary entries.
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Should one leave a job when there is no work to do? | 35 comments (32 topical, 3 editorial, 0 hidden)
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