Susan David has an article in the HBR Blog network asking the question, Is Busyness Bad for Business? While the answer might be obvious (Yes!), she talks about some recent work that suggests a more nuanced answer.
… But what should organizations read into that conversation? Is busyness bad for business?
The answer isn't a simple "yes" or "no". [NYT writer] Kreider argues that we need bout of idleness to get inspired and work more effectively, there is evidence that workers benefit from busyness. Take one experiment conducted in 2010 by professor Christopher Hsee at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. Hsee's team found that people who kept themselves occupied rather than waiting idly after a test felt happier. Interestingly, participants in the study were not likely to busy themselves unless they could justify the activity; they weren't interested in what Hsee and his colleagues call "futile busyness". But the results showed that even futile busyness is better than idleness.
Articles like this all feel familiar to me. On one side, there is a need for people to take a break (sabbaticals, vacations, coffee, …) from constant activity. On the other side, there is a natural reaction in people to "having nothing to do" that makes the people nervous - and it certainly makes managers nervous. (And anyone with kids can attest to this.) In the workplace, this translates into people believing rumors of layoffs. Or they decide to slow down the work they are already doing to fill the voice left by the "idle" periods.
From a management perspective, there is a familiar refrain that says "an idle resource is a waste." And we've all seen the claim that people who are busy are the ones who will get things done. Manager Tools recommends something along these lines with the assumption that intelligent people will learn how to "delegate to the floor" - drop the stuff that is least important.
This problem is particularly difficult for knowledge workers - people whose work is largely hidden from view until the work product is complete.
While the recommendations in the article are reasonable, I like to go another direction. Let's SEE what is happening. Make the work visible in some way. Get project charts up on the wall. Be simpler and put up a whiteboard with the work of the team and the basic steps things go through. Don't let people take on more than they can do until the next time you review the work. Review the work frequently, but briefly. (If it's more than 15 minutes a day, it's probably too much.) Look for places where people are getting stuck, and find ways to help each other. Look for places where the work gets stuck, and find ways to make it flow better. Look for reasons why some work flies and other work stagnates.
Oh, and to state the obvious, don't let your colleagues or your reports work on stuff that no one needs. The visualization helps everyone ask this question too - particularly your stakeholders.