is it okay to take advantage of calm weeks at work? — Ask a Manager

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A reader writes:

Is it okay to take advantage of calm weeks at work? I am an exempt employee, I genuinely love working, and I have always received good feedback. I am always available to deal with emergencies, and I always always finish my tasks in a timely manner and hand over quality work. When my workload gets big, I have no problem working late. And I am always happy to help out colleagues if they are swamped.

However, I sometimes feel a little bit guilty. For example, before the Christmas holidays, I had very hectic weeks, and I worked accordingly, sometimes until 9 pm. However, the week between Christmas and new year, I was in the office, and honestly … I barely received five emails the whole week. So yeah, I allowed myself to re-watch Seinfled during my working, yet very very calm, hours. For my intellect’s and dignitiy’s sakes, I did also watch webinars concerning my field of business…

I usually go to the office three days per week during our current Covid crisis. But today, I am working from home. It is 11 am on my side of the world, and I haven’t really done anything yet apart from reading scientific articles about hornet nests. I do have a couple of tasks on my to-do list for today, but I know that I will have time to finish them this afternoon.

I feel a little bit guilty about taking advantage of slow weeks, whenever they come. I will definitely ask my boss for more work on Monday (or even today, depending on the intensity of my guilt feelings, which, knowing myself, will increase).

But my question is: is it okay to sometimes (not always!) take advantage of a low workload and to “chill”? And do employees usually do this? Is it unethical?

It’s okay, most people do it sometimes, and it’s not unethical unless you’re shirking work that you really need to be doing.

In fact, sometimes there’s even benefit to doing it.

When your work comes in cycles of busy times and less busy times, it makes sense to use those less harried periods to let your brain calm down, so that you’re ready when the next busy time comes. Otherwise, you risk burning out and being less inclined to go all out the next time the work calls for it.

You were working until 9 pm when things were busy, so you’re clearly willing to lean into work when it’s needed. And you finish the things that must be done during slower times too, so you’re not abdicating core responsibilities of your job. You’re just managing the ebbs and flows in a way that makes sense — for you and for the work itself.

There are situations where I’d give a different answer. Let’s say that you never had to work late — you were always done by 5. But sometimes your work slowed down, and your “must do today” stuff took up a couple of hours a day at most … but you still had a long-term to-do list with projects you were supposed to get to as time allowed. In that situation, if you were spending hours reading about hornet nests instead of tackling that “as time allows” list, I’d tell you to cut it out. Time-sensitive work slowing down isn’t on its own justification to slack off on the rest of your job, when your job as a whole is easily handled within a normal 40-hour week.

But that’s not your situation. Your work has peaks and valleys, and it’s okay to rest in the valley a bit, knowing the next peak is coming. (You shouldn’t live long-term in the valley though! Think of it as a time-limited break to refresh.)

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