I don’t have enough work and my boss is too busy to give me more

A reader writes:

I was recently brought on as a permanent employee at a nonprofit where I had spent nine months as a temporary data entry assistant. In my previous position, I always had a stack of papers to verify or enter into our database, and could ask my coworkers if there was anything they needed help with if I found myself at a loss for something to do. In my new position, however, my supervisor doesn’t want me doing any of the work I had previously been doing as that’s a “waste of my time” (and presumably because they’re paying me too much to type stuff into Excel all day now).

The issue is that she often has meetings throughout the day both on and off site, including two-hour lunches almost every single day, and I always feel like I’m interrupting her when I ask what project she wants me to work on next, so I end up sitting in my office doing nothing or walking past her door hoping to catch her in a free moment to ask what I can do. I’m doing less work now than I was as a temp! How can I ask for direction from someone who’s not even in the office half the time?

It sounds like you’re approaching this project by project — you ask for a project, you get one, you complete it, and now you’re stuck with nothing to do again until you get the next one. Both you and your boss will probably be far happier if you talk to her about getting multiple projects all at once — preferably some long-term that won’t be completed for a while and some ongoing responsibilities (things that you’re in charge of forever) so that you’re not constantly dependent on her to tell you what to do next.

Ideally you’d propose what some of these projects and responsibilities could be, but if you don’t feel you’re in a position to figure that out yet, ask if you and she can meet to brainstorm what would be useful to her and others. But I bet that after temping there for nine months and talking to coworkers about what you could help with in the past, you’ll be able to come up with some things to propose that would be useful to your office.

You could also say, “I definitely understand that you don’t want me doing data entry anymore, but when I have long stretches where nothing else is going on, I’d love to be able to do that as an alternative to doing nothing at all — would that be okay?” And that might help drive home the “doing nothing at all” point, which should nudge her to figure out what you should actually be doing.

People in your shoes often worry that if they take this approach, their boss will figure out that there isn’t actually enough work to keep them busy, and it could put their job in jeopardy.  That probably isn’t going to happen — they had a reason for hiring you — but if that’s a risk, it’s a risk that’s there whether you point it out or not. You’re better off taking initiative and showing that you’re actively looking for ways to be productive.

And if this doesn’t solve the problem — or for that matter, even if it does — try asking if you can set up quick weekly meetings to figure out your priorities for the coming week, so that you’re not trying to figure out when/whether to interrupt her to get more work.

Also, speaking of interrupting her: I think you’re being too hesitant about not wanting to interrupt her when she looks busy. She’s your boss, you need to have some amount of time with her, and it’s reasonable and normal to stick your head in her door and say, “Hey, do you have a few minutes now or later today to touch base on my work?” You can also email her and say, “I’ve completed X and Y. Can you grab me this afternoon when you have a free minute to talk about what I should tackle next?” But hopefully if you use the approach above, you’ll have far less of a need to do that.

{ 82 comments… read them below }

  1. Amy S*

    I’d be curious to know if the OP received a job description when she was hired and if that could give her any clues on the kinds of things she could be working on. What was the conversation when you were hired? That might give you some clues, in addition to having the conversations with your boss.

    1. Ramona Flowers*

      I would also be interested to know what kind of onboarding or training you had for this role, if your predecessor left a handover, and how much responsibility you have.

      I discuss priorities with my manager but I make my own to-do lists and keep track of my own projects – neither of us would be happy if I waited for her to give me work. But I know what I’m meant to be achieving – OP do you have any goals or objectives or anything?

      1. CoveredInBees*

        Well, if the OP’s non-profit is anything like the ones where I worked the “on-boarding and training” was a stack of HR paperwork and encouragement that “you’re smart, you’ll pick it up. Let me know if you have questions…” or “We have some training in mind for you, but we’re a bit overwhelmed at the moment, so you’ll have to learn as you go until we can schedule some time for that.” Spoiler alert: That time never gets scheduled or gets rescheduled until it is useless. Sigh.

    2. OP/letter-writer*

      Heh. I received a job description that was copy-and-pasted from some old document and included all kinds of things I didn’t know how to do (like JQuery and MySQL). I brought up the fact that I wasn’t qualified according to the job description and was told by my direct supervisor and the IT contractor who is my actual supervisor (something I didn’t realize until a week or so into the position) that it’s not a big deal and I would pick things up as I went along, and explicitly told me that things on the description were not required for this position. I think the biggest thing for me, as other commenters have pointed out, will be learning more about Excel and how to use it effectively when I have downtime by watching videos and stuff.

  2. Murphy*

    I had this problem when I was an intern. My supervisor told me to let her know when I was close to being done, instead of when I was done. It didn’t help me, because she would just say “OK” and then not give me more work, but maybe it would help you.

  3. Bored*

    I had a contract position with a great company a couple of years ago that had the potential to become permanent. I had NOTHING to do literally 90% of the time. The company has a very modern, open floor plan, so I felt like the people around me, who were slammed, were eventually going to catch on that I was doing absolutely nothing. And I didn’t feel comfortable reading, surfing the web, etc., because everyone could see what I was doing. I was hired for a specific, huge project that I was more than capable of tackling alone, but my boss wouldn’t turn me loose to do it, and he was busy all the time. I had multiple, blunt conversations with him about the fact that I had nothing to do, and his response was always the same: “be patient”. There were days I cried in the bathroom from sheer frustration and boredom. I found another job and quit after 7 months. My boss was devastated when I resigned, begged me to stay, and went on and on how he’d never find anyone who was more perfect for the project. I’ll never understand why he didn’t just give me the freedom to get some work done.

    1. I See Real People*

      I’m in this spot right now as a full-time, permanent executive assistant. I have nothing to do. My boss says “sorry, I don’t have enough to keep you busy”. When the other slammed coworkers complain to him, (they won’t give me any work to hold me over) he tells me I need to look busy. I’m looking for another job, but it’s hard to wait and do nothing for 8 hours a day. My true skills in contracts and event planning are going to waste and I’m losing self-confidence. It’s a hard wait.

      1. Bored*

        I feel your pain. I could have managed the situation better if everyone around me hadn’t been so busy, and if I would have had some privacy to entertain myself. I literally stared at my computer or a blank sheet of paper for a large part of the day. It. was. awful.

      2. Q without U*

        Can you use your “look busy” time to learn a new skill? I used down time at a job to get much better at Excel (watched videos, did tutorials, tried to do existing tasks better in Excel) and it really benefited me in the long run. I always looked like I was busy, and nobody knew it wasn’t “real” work.

        1. essEss*

          I did that when I worked as a receptionist. My boss knew I didn’t have enough to do and told me to just “look busy”. I took tons of free online classes. I recommend Coursera for all sorts of college classes for free. I ended up with enough training that I was able to start picking up some technical work from our analysts and eventually worked on getting a degree (with some outside coursework in the evenings) and ended up hired elsewhere in the company for a great job because they had seen me staying motivated for several years.

        2. EddieSherbert*

          I did this when I had a job where I had to track my work time (like I worked on this for 2 hours and then this for 1 hour) and I’d ask my boss for more to do and he’d tell me he had nothing and to just wait for something (I was literally tracking “waiting for work per Wakeen’s suggestion).

          MUCH better for my moral, skillset… and my tracked time… to have “ongoing learning” instead of “doing nothing”!

      3. Pollygrammer*

        My “look busy” go-to is Amazon Mechanical Turk. Surveys and data entry look pretty work-ish to someone passing by, and I make a couple bucks. (This, I promise, was after exhausting every effort to get something real to do).

      4. TardyTardis*

        There were some times at OldJob, especially in winter, where things were very, very slow, and web surfing was discouraged–but more work could arrive at Any Random Time. I would take scratch paper, appear to stare intently at my monitor at a work-related site, and take notes. Said notes would actually being how my heroine found her way through monster-infested tunnels to rescue someone, but I was always ready to pick up on more work when it finally arrived.

    2. AKchic*

      I had a similar problem when I got hired on at my current job. I went from underpaid and (extremely) overworked to seemingly overpaid and (laughably) underworked. I spent my 3 month probation with no computer to even do my job, so my job consisted of sitting in my office and knitting, reading, and watching movies on my personal laptop. Once in a while I’d be allowed to use the boss’s spare desktop to do a 2 minute data entry project (which he’d show amazement that it took me such little time to enter in the variables), or weekly filing that took less than 30 minutes. Otherwise, extreme boredom the rest of my 40 hour workweek.

      I finally got my computer and was trained up in what the lead wanted me to do, but she didn’t want to turn over any of what she was doing (she “liked the mental stimulation”). Then we got new bosses who decided that they needed to do all of our work (even though the gov’t contract forbids them from doing it. I get 2 hours worth of work a day. I have to stretch it for 8. Then I get about 30 minutes worth of reports to run and “make pretty” for the PTB.

      If the pay weren’t so great, I would have already left. The pay and insurance is the only reason I stay here.

      1. bridget*

        I wonder if bosses like yours realize how wasteful they are being. You are sitting there day in and day out, a ready and willing resource that the company has already paid for. Your boss is a gatekeeper for using that resource, in that she needs to get you assignments and tools to be useful. By not doing so, your boss was wasting tons of the company’s money, which seems like it should be an obvious performance defect on his part.

        I wonder if these types of people are the same types of people who are so insistent on making sure every short-term, immediate fire is being handled that they cannot take half a day to let the little fires burn and sit back and do some medium or long term strategic planning about the big picture.

        1. AKchic*

          If I was actually given all of the work I’m supposed to do, I’d have more work to do. The thing is, I’m union, and I took a low-stress job compared to what I used to do. I could actually push all of what I do to 4-5 hours a day if I had all of my stuff instead of the bosses butting in. It’s a gov’t contract, and we’re required to have both me and the lead, per the contract. It’s the contracting bosses (non-union, contractor who won the contract, who hired us union workers) who are meddling and are trying to push all of the union workers out of the job so they can hire non-union labor for half the wages and then keep the rest of the contracting fee for the company profit (they underbid the contract, like most companies do).
          I’m locked in a great contract. If this company loses the contract, the next company that picks it up gets me. It’s just politics right now. I’m used to politics. And I’m used to patience.

    3. Turquoisecow*

      Yeah, I reached a point in my old job where my coworkers who were junior to me were handling the easy stuff and my boss refused to share the complex stuff with me. I literally spoke to him (and his boss) several times a week and practically begged for more work.

      Part of the problem was that my boss was very particular about how things should be done, and he wasn’t very good at delegating. So instead of handing me a task, trusting that I’d figure it out, and walking away, he insisted on walking me through each task many (slow) times, even going over the basic components I’d known forever. He and I had worked together (on the same team but not in a direct report relationship) for several years, so he should have trusted me by then, but it was entirely his failing.

      Eventually a coworker on the same level as me, but a different part of the same department, started to show me some of what they were working on, just so I wasn’t bored all the time.

      OP, don’t be afraid to speak up and ask for work. If you don’t have anything to do, that’s a failure of either your specific boss or th organization as a whole – not your fault at all! I’ve also had bosses who assumed that everything was fine and almost forgot I existed unless I went to them and checked in – they almost never checked up on me. This is especially common if your boss has a lot of reports, or isn’t used to managing.

  4. TootsNYC*

    Another possibility is to ask her to help you plot out a week’s worth of work. and then on Thursday, you meet to ask her for another week’s worth of work.

    also, ask if she can identify something that you can have a more proactive responsibility for–something that’s more general, and then YOU break out the smaller steps. You check in with her, of course, but…

  5. HR Here*

    Is it possible others are also supposed to be giving work and aren’t? I had a situation with a temp this summer, and I think she quit after a week for a similar situation. I was under the impression she was getting work from others I’d asked to help, and she was apparently only getting things from me. I wish she had discussed before quitting.
    Also, are you perhaps rushing the assignments? Same issue as above, I’d given her several projects it would have taken me at least several days, if not weeks, to do properly. She was blasting thorough them (incorrectly) in under an hour a piece. Given she didn’t last a week, I didn’t get to review them with her and discuss that before she left.
    Certainly we were partly at fault, it was a busy time and I was the only one at all attempting to work with her, which was not ideal, but she needed to communicate a bit more as well.

    1. Bea*

      Were you explaining the projects to her in detail prior to handing them off?

      I ran into an issue with a new hire doing things all wrong and seemingly breezing through because I didn’t train them in depth. I didn’t realize it until a couple weeks in and had a lot of mess to clean up. I was then suddenly aware what I’m used to whipping out is foreign concept for others who don’t care or aren’t feeling empowered to ask for deeper instructions.

      My entire career has been built on self training and figuring it out. I now know I’m a wackadoo and the vast number of people don’t know where to start and some will guess and figure it’s just fine until told differently.

      Also lack of working directly with a temp and giving them projects but not training to do them will get a person who isn’t me to walk out. Man, I’ve spent a lot of time realizing all these quirks as I struggle with everyone assuming I’m busy AF when my projects take me very little effort. “It’s time consuming though?” “It’s a two step process…so not really.”

      I was a temp way back when and completed a 3 week job in 7 days. They were shocked. And it was done correctly. They were upset that they couldn’t keep me longer but that was the only project that required an extra body in the department [purging a mountain of files, ick].

      1. nonymous*

        >My entire career has been built on self training and figuring it out. I now know I’m a wackadoo and the vast number of people don’t know where to start and some will guess and figure it’s just fine until told differently.

        I get so confused when I come across people who take the position that their boss and coworkers should convince them that some method/task is necessary, but don’t have the initiative to present ideas in the same vein. Like their primary contribution to the org is doing the least amount of work possible with the least amount of intellectual effort.

        1. selena81*

          i am too shy to have much initiative, but i definitely don’t require someone to ‘convince’ me to do the job i’m paid to do: give me orders, please please please.
          And plase tell me when i screwd up (and when not) so i can be better in the future.

  6. cutie honey*

    i always try to have my own side projects that I can work on while i’m waiting for my boss to approve things/give me scopes/etc. I know when you’re new you don’t necessarily have that stable of extra work built up yet, but it’s something to keep an eye out for!

  7. X. Trapnel*

    I had a job like this 5 or 6 years ago. I was taken on as a programme coordinator for a programme that, quite honestly, was a pipe dream of my manager’s (don’t ask how she got funding for such an ephemeral thing, but she did).
    I spent 4 months doing nothing. Requests for work we’re met with vague hand wavings and lots of meaningless burble about how busy I’d be when her project got off the ground.
    I cleaned the office top to bottom, then did it again, did my colleagues’ photocopying and filing, washed dishes in the office kitchen & cleaned the fridge, read 3 novels and brushed up on the Russian verbs of motion… all whilst picking up a generous salary.
    Sounds good, money for old rope, eh? but it was soul-destroying. I quit into the 5th month.
    I really do feel for you OP and hope you get things sorted out.

  8. Amber T*

    This was my big fear when I was hired… I was initially hired to “fill in the gaps” and occasionally, there weren’t any. When it rained, it poured, but there were definitely dry spells. Everyone else always seemed to ridiculously busy, though. So I scheduled time to meet with my boss (didn’t just poke my head in my office, scheduled a half hour meeting a few days in advance), set out my concerns, named my accomplishments so far, noticed where I thought I could be helpful*, and asked what she thought. It was never perfect balancing act (some days I was at 120% capacity and had to say no to people, which coworkers didn’t like, some days I was at 50% and still twiddled my thumbs), but it was much better in the long wrong.

    *I was a recent grad in my second job (and for all intents and purposes, first real job, since ToxicOldJob really didn’t give me any training for anything legit). Admittedly I kind of messed this up, so now that I’m older and wiser, I’ll phrase it how I probably should have back then – “I noticed Coworker gets tied up frequently with X, which seems like something I could handle, so she could focus on Y and Z. Is that a responsibility I could take over for her?” (When X is something that literally no one wanted to do, BUT gave a lot of insight on what the company does and got me in front of a lot upper management).

    1. Lil Fidget*

      Hmm, I might try to run it past the coworker before I asked a boss to let me take over their task. People get weird about that kind of thing.

      1. Bea*

        Yes. Then you’re infringing on their duties and some don’t like that. I sure wouldn’t because I’m like “who are you, why are you doing my job suddenly?”. Even if it’s meant to be an assistance, much better to discuss with the person first than being so eager.

      2. Amber T*

        Very true. My boss was brought on to help manage coworkers’ workflow (the hierarchy in my company is very ridiculous… I could confidently say she was my manager at the time, but I’m not sure if she could’ve been considered their manager, or who would have been considered their managers, tbh). My boss’s conversation with them wouldn’t have been “You are no longer doing X, Amber is.” It was “Amber is available to do X if that lightens up your workload, would that help you?” (and it my case, it did.) That might be more of a unique-ish situation to my company, so YMMV.

        OP, I would still schedule a time to sit with your boss and go over your work load and responsibilities.

      3. nonymous*

        Even better is when boss asks you how to do some technical thing that is ridiculously trivial and then introduces as a change to coworker’s work process that _you_ are initiating. Like my job description clearly states that coming up with technical ways to improve workflow is like a 1/3 of my job, but boss wont say that to the rest of the team.

  9. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

    Is it possible to schedule standing biweekly meetings with her? Then there’s an organized time to gameplan around short- and long-term projects and tasks.

    But definitely also be a little more direct. I had a boss who kept saying I needed to interrupt him more if I needed his attention, and it drove me nuts because when I did interrupt him, he always said he was busy or couldn’t speak (grrr), which made me feel more hesitant about interrupting him in the future. And then I was in a big interruption-shame-spiral. Now I just let my shame spiral feelings go and interrupt as needed.

  10. The Tin Man*

    My job has had a lot of projects that I created myself. There have been times when I did not have enough to do so I just started doing something, and then after some good work was done I showed it to my boss and said “This is something I’ve been working on because I noticed XYZ (usually that time was being wasted manually making a report that could be automated). What do you think?”

    This won’t work in all offices but mine thankfully appreciates that. I have gradually gotten more regular responsibilities that I don’t have to/don’t have the time to do that any more.

    1. LizB*

      I actually just spent the past two weeks figuring out what projects I can invent to keep myself busy for the next few months. My regular responsibilities fill 40 hours on my busiest weeks, but I have tons of not-so-busy weeks where those tasks fill more like 20 hours, so I like to have a few ongoing things happening. From now until June or so, on my less busy weeks, I’m going to be doing some combination of the following:
      – Getting trained to be a trainer on a topic I’m interested in, and that our department always needs more trainers for
      – Piloting a new kind of client outreach and assessing whether there’s enough demand to continue doing it
      – Reaching out to organizations we often work with to try and formalize a couple of partnerships that have been pretty ad hoc up until now
      – Organizing a couple of staff engagement initiatives
      – Writing up documentation of a new process so it can be replicated across different departments

      My manager loves that I come up with this stuff on my own, but I do always get his approval before I commit to anything ongoing or spend more than a couple hours of work time on a project.

      For me, the key features that make a self-created project proposal successful are:
      1. It will add value to my work and advance the goals of the organization.
      2. It’s at least somewhat related to my central responsibilities, OR to a professional development goal I’ve discussed with my manager
      3. It has a defined deliverable or end date, so I won’t be working on it indefinitely.
      4. If my regular workload increases for some reason, I can easily drop the project or put it on the back burner.

  11. caryl*

    I was in this situation when I started my first professional job. The person I replaced had left nine months prior to my hire date, so the team got used to doing things with their limited numbers. It took a few months and several meetings before I caught on to where I could be of significant use. Maybe you can request to attend meetings with your boss? I started volunteering for anything I could during those meetings, then eventually got onto committees, and now I have more projects and ideas for projects than I could ever finish.

    You were a temp for long enough that you might have noticed some areas or projects that really need a rework. Could you take the initiative and pitch an idea?

  12. bored at work*

    I am leaving a similar situation. My boss started off on site but gradually began traveling most weeks and working from home other days. Once or twice in the office per every two weeks was the norm. I no longer got the supervision or assignments that I needed and my growth stalled. Everyday I came in with worry that my empty schedule was a sign that my position would be eliminated; the company does frequent layoffs and my position was newly created, with me being the first one to hold it. I began to job search and I would suggest the same as a potential solution if you don’t see results from the advice given. You will be able to find something that lets you maximize your talents. Otherwise, you begin to dislike your job, feel bored and unfulfilled and lose the ability to be productive.

  13. Esme Squalor*

    This was me in the first few months of my first job out of college. I would be given about five to ten hours of work every 40-hour week, and I was an anxious mess most of the time, because I felt like I should be doing SOMETHING. And I was bored. I tentatively voiced to my supervisor that I could use some more things to work on, but she waved me off, and I wasn’t in a position to create my own work (I did end up creating one big project out of boredom, but that particular project had special circumstances). I ended up just leaving an Excel spreadsheet on my screen all the time and having a 2-by-2 inch window pulled up in the corner with texts from Project Gutenberg. I ended up reading 20 classic novels in that job, including the complete works of Jane Austen, most of the complete works of Dickens, a lot of Wodehouse, and The Picture of Dorian Gray.

    I was very young and not yet skilled at asserting myself. As much as I enjoy classic literature, I’d much rather spend my work time, y’know, working. I had a lull in my current job last year, and I very clearly expressed to my supervisor that I needed more work and followed up with some suggestions. Then I kept reminding her until she reshuffled some work from my [extremely] overburdened colleague whose projects were in full swing.

  14. Parse*

    Could you have a conversation with your boss on the types of work you’d like to be doing? My company encourages growth, so there have been a few times when I told my boss that I wanted more exposure to X, and she would try to find smaller tasks that could help me build skills towards that.

    This way, you naturally get more on your plate without saying that you don’t have enough.

  15. Ashley*

    I have been through this and it sucks. I spent a lot lot of time typing forms that only existing as printed originals or making adobe forms. It gave me something to do while waiting for my manager to give me more work. I would also ask during your meeting with your manager who you should ask to help in the office if your manager isn’t free and you are caught up on your work.

  16. The Other Dawn*

    When you talk with your manager, ask her for three things: short-term, mid-term and long-term projects/tasks. That way you’ll (hopefully) have a good variety of things to keep you busy and not dependent on her being present. I’d also suggest making up some side projects as others have said. I’ve done that lots of times. Sometimes it becomes a can of worms I wish I didn’t open and it uncovers something no one noticed for five years, but it keeps me busy and gives me a feeling of accomplishment.

  17. I am good at dealing with people*

    I’m not the OP, but I’m in a similar situation: I was brought on as a contractor three and a half months ago during my department’s peak time. Now I’m going through a time just like the OP: my colleagues are busy and I’m not. I’ve let them know I’m available for more work. I’m also scared they don’t have any more work and will let me go — even though we were told last week our team is changing and we’ll have new projects soon. What to do besides surf the Internet?

    1. clow*

      I’m not sure what industry you are in, but in my case, after a big project is done and we have a little downtime, I do tutorials and find professional development courses online that are free and do those during work hours. It helps my team in the long run since I am learning new skills or keeping skills sharp and it feels work related.

  18. Agent Diane*

    Congratulations, OP! You get to learn how to “manage upwards”! Seriously, it’s a useful skill that will help you throughout your career.

    I 100% agree with scheduling a weekly meeting. You manager should be doing this anyway. Is it possible she’s new to management and hasn’t realised she’s left you dangling?

    Also, flag when you are close to done: it’s her responsibility to ensure your next project is ready to start. (And multi-tasking is your friend!)

    Finally, ask her if there are tasks she can be delegating to you to help her with her epic schedule. Again, if she is new to management she may be grappling with letting go or in the spiral of “I don’t have time to show you how to save me time”.

  19. Neosmom*

    I have been through this, too. One way I coped was surfing the internet to educate myself on topics, which led me to Ask a Manager, Human Workplace, and Mr. Excel (and other wonderful skills training videos). In addition, I was a contract worker at a company that had been spun off from its corporation – so I volunteered my services “stylizing” Word versions of manuals and forms with the new logo and look handed down by marketing.

  20. RedRH*

    Ugh, this happened to me at the beginning of my current job. My manager was just too busy and there was nothing for me to do except listen to past presentations our CEO made at conferences for eight. Hours. A. Day. What’s weirder than that is that my manager after a few months told me that I was goofing off too much (internet browsing, texting, etc.) and it was lowering team morale even though I had maybe a fourth of the workload that everyone else had and therefore had nothing to do?

    Probably won’t happen to you, but I get the struggle of wanting more work and not getting it.

    1. bcc*

      I used to work for a small family company where the boss was convinced I was “window-switching” whenever he passed by because I was goofing off when I thought he wasn’t looking. In reality, up till that point I literally never went to a website for non-business purposes. He also said I wasn’t working fast enough and that I wasn’t “that smart.” Given that this was my first real job, I think these two comments instilled some sort of self-doubt in my subsequent jobs. Looking back, I don’t know why I put up with him and didn’t quit with style. Every now and then he would call me to his office, perhaps out of boredom, to start lecturing me the way he would his own kids, and saying things like “Don’t be too curious. You’ve heard that curiosity kills the cat, don’t you?” and “Even if you know something is wrong, just keep quiet. You’ve heard about Edward Snowden? He didn’t discover anything new, everyone just knew to keep quiet.” In one lecture, he completely misunderstood the meaning of “garbage in, garbage out,” but at that point I knew better than to say anything and be held hostage in his office for even longer.

    2. MissDissplaced*

      It is kind of normal the first month of jobs, and the larger the company the more boring stuff you have to watch when you’re onboarded. I’m now 4 months in and only really starting to take ownership of larger projects (and I’m a seasoned career level). But this company is extremely complex and difficult to navigate where i used to do things myself.
      Bcc: man, that boss really sucked. We’ve all had those jerks unfortunately.

  21. bcc*

    I have a similar problem. I work for a large company and used to look for assignments from other departments, but I stopped after being informed by a coworker that maybe I was overstepping my bounds. I have not figured out how to approach my manager yet about not having enough work, partly because I was afraid she might ask “So what have you been doing this whole time?” and end up opening a can of worms.

  22. Ms. Buttersworth*

    Take Allison’s advice OP, but if a few months go by and nothing changes then I would strongly recommend starting a thorough job search. I’ve been in your shoes before: I was an intern who was brought into a full-time position. My boss sang my praises about how smart and capable I was and how glad he was to have me on the team, but he wouldn’t hand over any of the tasks I had been hired to do. He then hired another intern, who was now my direct report, to do all of the stuff that I did as an intern. It was really difficult to pretend to be busy while my direct report had more work to do than I did. Because my boss was so enthusiastic about me, I didn’t think that it would be an issue, so I settled in and assumed that work would come my way eventually once I got some more “experience” (whatever that meant). It didn’t. My boss finally realized the redundancy of my position and fired me out of the blue with one week’s notice. The firing put me in a really bad position financially, and to preserve his image my boss has to cite “performance issues” (despite that I was never given a PIP or a single negative performance evaluation) instead of admitting that he wasted the organization’s money on my salary. My self confidence tanked as a result. It took months for me to find a job and I settled for a position that I didn’t really like because it was in my field and I needed the money.

    It all worked out in the end, but my point is don’t be complacent about this. If more work doesn’t come your way within the next few months- especially after following Allison’s advice- it’s never coming.

  23. Lil Fidget*

    This can be hard from both sides. It’s hard when you have a new employee and they’re constantly bugging you for more work, too. Also, it can be a big up front investment of time to train somebody, and that’s daunting if you feel like you’re already at the end of your rope even if you know if would pay off down the line. And it doesn’t mean the new employee isn’t necessary! Just that they’re not able to be utilized – right now. It’s very frustrating for all involved.

  24. Anon Marketer*

    Allison (or any helpful commenters!) — how would this advice differ in a more seasoned position? I have a direct report that frequently says, “okay project X is done, what should I do next?” I’ve tried explaining that she needs to be more self-directed in her work and come up with projects that would benefit the company and/or department (we’re in marketing, if that matters). Doesn’t seem to be sinking in. Is my expectation reasonable?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Yes! Or at least yes assuming that you’ve told her that explicitly. If you have, then at this point I’d move to “Part of the expectations of this role are that you will develop your own goals and projects, and then get aligned with me about whether/how to pursue those. Can you spend some time on this over the next two weeks and then present me with four to six long-term project ideas to structure your next six months around?” (Or whatever numbers make sense there.) You could add, “And then going forward, I’d like you to make sure you’re doing this on a regular basis so that your major priorities are always scheduled out at least a quarter in advance.”

      1. Mike C.*

        I think this is great, but I’d like to add that it’s really helpful for these sorts of employees (I’m one) to understand what the larger goals, strategies, risks and so on are that management is concerned about. This isn’t always obvious if you’re in a larger organization or there’s been a reorg, but that sort of understanding can more easily lead to new projects that directly meet business needs.

        In short, let them know what you are worried about, what your boss is worried about, what your boss’s boss is worried about, that sort of thing. When you check in with them, what are they worried about? What do they want to see? That should help inspire your employee.

        1. Anon Marketer*

          I have indeed communicated that part of the role is to develop goals and projects, almost in exactly the language I used above. I like the idea of her coming up with a few long-term projects to focus on. I think that’s a great way to get started.

          And Mike, it’s funny you should say that because that’s what the majority of our team meetings have been focused on for the last few weeks — business needs and the overall company goals for the fiscal year. There’s been a lot of growth and change but there are concrete things we need to focus on. Makes me feel like I’m at least on the right track.

          Thank you both!

    2. nnn*

      It might also be useful to give her examples of projects other people in similar positions have come up with, so she has a rough idea of what’s appropriate here, what constitutes laudable initiative vs. overstepping, etc.

  25. Lillian Gilbreth*

    I’m about 7 months into my first job, and I’m only just getting to the point where I actually feel like I’m helpful when I’m put on a project. The kind of work I’m in has a bit of a learning curve, so it took this long to just get me up to speed and there were a lot of slow days and weeks early on. I felt very similar to the OP – everyone was too busy to train me how to be helpful so I spent a lot of time just dicking around online. All my coworkers understood, and they knew I would rather be working and whenever they had something I could do with minimal supervision they would give it to me.

  26. Not Cathy*

    I feel you OP. In most of my jobs I have felt underwhelmed which led to me getting bored and feeling depressed. Not that I enjoyed being slammed all day but having tasks to rely to keep the work flow is important. It sounds like you aren’t being trained either. Perhaps a meeting with boss to discuss expectations? I finally found a job perfect for me where my productivity is awarded. I don’t see how people can sit and watch a clock for 8 hours without going nuts, there’s only so much AAM you can read in a day :)

  27. Nita*

    This is sometimes a problem in my department. Sometimes more experienced people will have too much work, but some of it is hard to delegate to staff with less experience. Paradoxically, what might help is taking on new work when your boss is less busy, and has time to train you.

  28. Tableau Wizard*

    My first boss sat me down within my first few months and gave me a condescending lecture about all the things I could/should be filling my time with when I have “nothing to work on”. She likened it to when kids say they are “bored” but there’s a whole lot of options for what they could do with their time. Did I mention she was condescending?

    Regardless of her terrible delivery, the idea was a helpful one. Are there any projects that you can take initiative on as a side project? Are there industry related articles you could try to read? Is there anything you’ve been wanting to learn that you could watch tutorial videos for? Perhaps you could even approach your boss and say, “When I don’t have specific projects that you need from me, I was thinking I could fill my time with X, Y and Z activities. Does that sound right to you? If not, what would you suggest I do differently?”

    Ironically, part of that conversation is what led me to spending (probably too much) time on AAM because I was looking for resources that could help me with professional development. Also ironically, AAM helped me realize some of the major flaws of that boss.

    1. Mike C.*

      “My father used to say that only boring people get bored … I used to think that it’s only boring people who cannot feel boredom so cannot conceive of it in others”. Robert Ford, Westworld.

  29. That Would Be a Good Band Name*

    Maybe this is unusual, but I’ve always found that my jobs start off a little underwhelming. Supervisors usually start with small stuff and see how you do prior to trusting you with bigger projects. Eventually you just kinda gather new responsibilities and then you find yourself busy all the time. I don’t know that I’ve ever started somewhere and had them prepared to give me a full 40 hours of stuff to do right away. I know at my last job my two coworkers were working 50-60 hours a week and my boss was not allowing me to help on the project that was keeping them so busy because she didn’t want to “scare me off”. (It was a disaster that I did eventually help with.) I’d definitely have a meeting with your supervisor. If nothing else, she needs to know that you are ready to take on a bit more work.

  30. Snark*

    So, five years ago, I was on a contract to do environmental compliance and planning work for a power plant that would burn logging waste, a so-called biofuel plant. The project would have been executed in a location I will choose not to specifically reveal, but which was located at least 40 miles and 2000 feet lower in altitude from the nearest forest, in the middle of a bona fide desert filled largely with creosote bushes, cactus, and yucca. Obviously the entire concept was insanity, and the project dried up and blew away in a sandstorm a few months after I relocated my family there, nine hours from all our friends. Thus began three months in which I was being paid for work on a project that for all intents and purposes did not exist anymore. I was bored out of my goddamn tree, except THERE WERE NO GODDAMN TREES.

    That’s all a long and involved way to say, man, OP, I feel your pain.

    I ended up resolving things, and moving to a larger and cooler city, by advocating for myself and my capacity for work every chance I could with my bosses. I realize it’s hard to nail your boss down, but you need to make really clear that you’re a priority that merits some time and management effort on her part, despite her “I’m so busy I have no time to chat about anything” deal.

  31. Artemesia*

    I think it is a big mistake to get in the habit of doing grunt work not in your job description when you don’t have enough to do. In an all hands on deck situation, that is different. I have stapled and collated right along with staff when a grant proposal was being put together to get out — but to do it often runs the risk of making it your job.

    Instead I would be as Alison suggests coming up with a strategy for long term work projects so you have a few things that are at your level but have distant time lines to fill in on when current projects are done. You will have to take the initiative because you have a disorganized boss. At best, you have a list you sit down with her to discuss; at worst, you arrange a time to brainstorm with her to create such a list.

  32. BlueWolf*

    I was in a similar situation when I first started at my job, but then someone gave their notice a few weeks after I started and I ended up shadowing them to take over their job. Those first few weeks were sooo boring, so I can’t imagine if that had continued. I think they just weren’t sure what the position would entail when they first posted it, and the timing just happened to work out.

  33. Employment Lawyer*

    This is simply poor management, but you can solve it by thinking of “priority levels.” I am explicit with people who work for me and it has worked very well.

    High priority are things which you are expected to do now / soon. In my office, most “Client X needs this done” assignments are in that category.

    Medium priority is “stuff which constantly needs to be done, but which isn’t important enough to schedule for.”
    Every office has these things: Bank reconciliations; office supply reordering; emptying the shredder; filing the not-as-important stuff; etc. If you have at least 10 hours/month of downtime, and if it doesn’t matter how often things are done so long as they’re at least monthly, this is a great fit.

    Low priority is stuff which is almost on the “dream list.” I wouldn’t really hire someone to do it in my case, but I’d rather have them work on my list than surf Facebook. Maybe they’re evaluating competing websites and writing a short memo. Maybe they’re taking online CLE to learn tricks for MS Office (you can NEVER be “too good” at using Office!); or they’re learning a new practice area,; or they’re thinking about the letterhead redesign I’ve been pushing off for years, or….

    Outside of the high priority, management does not even really need to bother prioritizing within classes. Usually one will just seem right to the person doing it, based on a combination of available time (all day? 45 minutes?) and interest etc. And that sort of thing is always a good test for employee discretion, as well as a way to let employees blow off mental steam while getting something done.

    So, I would have a sit-down with your manager. Explain that you would like some long term low-priority projects so you can feel useful with your downtime. If you really want points, try to think of some to propose (learn better Office!)

  34. SystemsLady*

    My job can get like this when a rush of clients miss deadlines, but fortunately we’re traditional style salary, and unfortunately that situation often leads to mad rush weeks anyway where all the spare time is made up with overtime.

    Not to mention some amount of planned overtime and a week or two of dead time every year is expected and typical.

    In my case, the answer truly was to stop bothering my manager (who is busy but also largely knows when we are not) except when I need him to prod a client for me.

    This is definitely not a similar situation to OP’s, though, so simply wishing them luck knowing how that feels and how anxiety inducing it can be.

  35. MassMatt*

    Wow, really surprised how many people have been in this situation, and not just during a short seasonal lull or between projects. Great if you’re George Constanta I guess.

    I would recommend following the many bits of advice about getting more direction/work from your boss and staying occupied, and if things don’t look to be changing then start a job search. The issue of someone not producing being a potential layoff target aside, this is terrible for your morale and long-term career.

  36. Noah*

    On the interrupting your boss point, it’s critical to remember Boss is just a regular human being. This really was driven home to me when a close relative became a judge. People think she’s monolithic, but she’s really truly a person like everyone else. This really helped me not be scared to talk to somebody because of their position. It’s still hard to talk to a pretty woman I don’t know, though. :-)

  37. Wintermute*

    This is an excellent response but I feel like it undersells it a little when Alison says: “but if that’s a risk, it’s a risk that’s there whether you point it out or not. You’re better off taking initiative and showing that you’re actively looking for ways to be productive.”

    In fact, it’s not just better off, it’s likely to be the difference between the position being eliminated or not if they are truly lacking work long-term for you. Now some positions get seasonally slow, that’s a bit different but if they’re truly lacking work to consistently fill the dance card of the position’s holder, it may be the difference. The reason is you can trust a “if you’ve got time to lean you’ve got time to clean” type to add value even if they don’t have an immediate task in front of them or a current project. Now you have to be judicious and know how much you’re expected to stay in your lane and what areas you’re able to chip in with or what else you can take on. Few places would take the “clean not lean” statement beloved of fast food managers everywhere and literally expect a senior network engineer to start polishing down tables and mopping the break room (though some small shops might!). That’s where this conversation with your boss comes in. But it shows that you’re going to be a continual value to the company of your own initiative and not need to be spoon-fed work if things get slow.

  38. Traffic_Spiral*

    This one gets its own post, but “ban the heathen from the kosher kitchen” and “fired for RL stanning his criminal waifu” get lumped together with 3 extra questions? Guess you never can tell.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Commenters are only a small fraction of total readers, so the number of comments a post is likely to draw isn’t the primary or only thing I think about when deciding what posts will be stand-alones and what posts will be grouped with others. It’s *a* factor, yes, but there are other things that go into it too.

          (And 77 comments isn’t “no one cared.” On many sites, that would be an enormous response.)

  39. kible*

    Ah, this happens at my job. In fact right now it is. Boss doesn’t work in our office and he tends to forget me, usually gives work to the other team members first. Which was funny on my yearly review when he expressed he wished I had taken on more work with two of the clients, despite him never giving me any and my teammates never needing the help. I always ask him if there’s things to be done but I get a “not really, relax during the slow period while it lasts” but when i have to track my time to the hour and the much higher ups come down on us if we don’t have enough billable time vs support/free time…

  40. Newbie*

    I feel you OP. I’m in a current situation to yours where I have a lot of downtime but all my co-workers around me are busy. I work for a small company and when I was hired my manager acknowledged that my main job responsibilities wouldn’t take up enough time to fill my days and so she said I would also pick up administrative tasks/act as her personal assistant to help fill in that time. While this is fine in theory, it doesn’t wind up happening in practice. The administrative tasks she had in mind were things like sending a fax or scanning something once or twice a week- not enough to fill up my days! I have spoken with her about how much downtime I have three times over the course of my year and a half working here, but she isn’t able to come up with anymore work for me to do and at this point I don’t want to push it any further and risk my job security. I think for her it’s a lack of management skills and delegation. Thankfully I do have some privacy to play around on my computer to entertain myself and there are times where my main tasks are enough to keep me feeling busy, but I totally understand the feeling of wanting more work and not getting it. I am planning on looking for a new job, both because of this and other reasons.

  41. Koko*

    This may also be partly due to your role being so new.

    2 years ago I hired a direct report into a newly-created role. Because it was a brand new role, it didn’t exactly have a backlog of undone work. We’d created the position so that I could begin to delegate some of my lower-level tasks to her and create time for me to take on additional higher-level work.

    She also brought some unique skills that I don’t have (that we hadn’t originally been looking for) so the position was rewritten pretty substantially to make those skills a key component of her job, including spending some of her time supporting other teams who didn’t have a person with her skillset.

    There were some projects I could give her right away, but others I needed to sit with her the first time she did them, and others where I was a bottleneck because I needed to do something on my end before she could be assigned her piece, and I was so busy and she was so efficient that she would often finish a project before I had done my part of the next one available for her.

    Other teams were also initially slow to assign work to her because they’d gotten along without someone with her skills for so long that they’d learned to structure projects to not need those skills, or were just suck in their own patterns of muddling through on their own time.

    But after about 5-6 months she was fully up to speed, and she’d had a chance to meet and talk casually with people from other teams at happy hours and brown bag lunches, etc., so they were more aware of her as a resource and began to utilize her more without me having to ask, “Does anybody have work for Juanita?”

    It’s been a couple of years now and she’s almost entirely self-directed. She fields requests from other teams mostly independently (just giving me a heads-up whenever she’s spending a lot of time on something outside our team), she is familiar enough with the work that she can now do a lot of that prep work I was initially doing for her, and we’ve worked together to identify long-standing unmet needs in the org that could use her skills. Since they’ve been unmet for so long there’s no urgency to them, so she picks them up whenever she has downtime.

    You may find that as you grow more into your role and learn more about the company, your manager stops being as much of a bottleneck for you.

  42. alana*

    I’m the boss in this scenario right now! It’s stressful on both sides.

    But here’s how I’d think about it, and what I’m striving to do, not always successfully:

    —Your manager should be meeting with you weekly and, likely, checking in with you daily. If she is, ask at one of those meetings if you can have a quick check-in each morning just so you’re sure you understand your priorities for the day. (“Priorities” is a magic word with management, whether you are overworked or underworked.) Do it at a time and in a format (email, phone call, in person message) that works for her.

    —If you aren’t have a regular meeting, get a meeting on the calendar, and ask to meet more regularly. Demanding management is a useful skill!

    —At that meeting, tell her that you’ve found you have some downtime between projects. Ask: Are there long-term projects, or less time-sensitive things, I can work on during that time? Or are there other ways I can be helpful to you and the team?

    —It’s also OK to ask coworkers if there’s anything you can help with. They also might have advice for this situation — what do they do when they have downtime?

    —And don’t feel bad about interrupting your manager or asking for help or guidance. Even if she seems frazzled or frustrated if you do, it is her job to help you. It is also her job, if it’s bothering you, to tell you, Hey, I need you to not ask me what you should do next every 45 minutes, and ideally come up with a way for you to solve the problem on your own.

    You also don’t say how recently you started. If it’s your first month or first six weeks on the job, I wouldn’t worry about it too much — as you get more training and more types of work come up, you’ll naturally get busier. If it’s been a few months, then this is certainly something you’ll want to address.

  43. Rebecca*

    So glad to see so many similar stories to mine.
    I started a new job 8 weeks ago and my boss is too busy to give me more work. She’s either working of an important document that only she can write, seeing clients, on lunch, gossiping with other staff or out of the office doing something for her kids.

    I returned to work when my second was 11 months old as we wanted the extra money to save quicker for our wedding, I study in the field im working in and I want to contribute towards my Superannuation and keep my CV up to date. It was a great opportunity in a position close to home. However now i’m sitting at work feeling bored out of my brain because I could be spending this wasted time with my kids or on my studies.

  44. Bumblebee*

    I work in a company where there are only 2 out of 80 staff with my job, one in another location. Our supervisor came up the ranks, and this is a new position. I am crammed in a small office with no support system, a new job description, and an absentee supervisor. She shows up here once every couple weeks for a half a day at most, but largely supervises via email. I’ve had 4 face-to-face meetings with her since August, all of which I asked for. My co-workers resent me because they are overworked, yet every time I try to take initiative (I do have experience in this field), it’s “wrong” somehow. My job description has the ever-popular “other duties as assigned”, and I spend 50% of my day doing exactly that; cleaning, answering phones, taking out garbage, etc. Like a previous poster said, I do not mind pitching in when times are tough, but not 50% of the time, every day.

    I’ve been asking for a sit-down with my manager and the manager of the other person with my position for 4 months, and it has yet to be scheduled. That person at least has a private office, which affords some privacy for continuing ed as others have suggested. I have someone behind me almost 80% of the time.

    This has taken such a toll on my self-esteem, it’s affecting my sleep and eating and drinking habits. I am looking for something else, but I’m terrified it won’t be any better. I can’t just walk, or I probably would have after being screamed at by a co-worker last month to “just do your f’n job”. Which is….?

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