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How To Motivate Yourself In An Unmotivated Workplace

You rush to work, only to find there isn't much work to do today. In fact, there's never enough work to do! How on earth will you fill the time? Even more, how will you deal with co-workers who seem just fine with this work-starved work environment?


Tales From the Slow Workplace
I've been there. In college, I worked as a clerical temp and accepted a full-time, five-day receptionist assignment over a holiday break. I showed up first thing on Monday morning. I can't remember what line of work the company was in; all I remember is how quiet it was in that office. Nobody made any noise. The walls were a sad beige. I didn't know the company's backstory, but it felt like a tearjerker.

I greeted the manager and was directed to a desk near the front entrance. The manager asked me to answer the phone. It was 8 a.m., and I braced myself for a steady stream of phone calls. Take a deep breath, because you won't be coming up for air until lunch time! That was usually how these gigs went.

I waited (and waited) for the phone to ring. The phone would ring twice during the first hour. I hadn't been given any other tasks to do in the meantime.

After neatening the desk top (the actual wooden desk kind) and pondering the 50 ways to look busy at work when there's nothing else to do, I approached an employee sitting at a nearby desk. "The phone has been kind of quiet so far," I whispered, understating the obvious as my voice broke the office's silence barrier. "Is there anything I could help you with today? Filing or making copies? Just let me know."

The employee was all caught up on everything, but thanks for asking! I went back to my desk and sat down. There had to be something I could do to keep myself occupied. I mean, there's only so many times you can rearrange a pen jar! The phone still wasn't ringing.

Finally, in quiet desperation, I knocked on the manager's door. "Hi, the phone has been pretty quiet so far this morning," I said, asking if there were any clerical projects I could help with. Filing? Making copies?

"Hmm," the manager said, pausing to think. "Did you bring a book?" (This was the pre-smartphone/tablet era.)

"Uh, no?" I answered, having assumed that bringing a book to the first day (or any day, really) of a gig wouldn't be a very good look. The manager said to just keep answering the phone. I could bring a book with me tomorrow, though!

Hmm. I thanked the manager and walked back to my desk. I sat down, and looked at my watch. It was almost 10 a.m. It was a struggle to fill the time until 5 o'clock. I brought a book to work the next day, but I felt awkward reading it and put it away. Instead, I pulled out a blank notebook to make "to do" lists, jot down story ideas, and write whatever else came to mind. Writing felt more action-oriented than reading. The phone rarely rang.

In the end, I did my time (the full 40 hours) at that gig because I had made the commitment to do it. I wasn't a quitter, but quitting time never felt better! Adding new cover sheets to every TPS report in the office would have been a very welcome project.


So I have empathy for the severely under-worked, highly-bored employee. It's a tough spot to be in, especially these days when the broader workplace and social media messaging is all about being "so busy" all the time. We're busy, therefore we are! There's no excuse for not being constantly swamped. If we aren't constantly swamped, then we feel like it must be our fault somehow. We're simply not doing enough to stay busy.

Smartphones, tablets and social media can help us pass the time when there isn't enough work to do, but technology still doesn't solve the essential, age-old problem: how did this workplace lose its motivation? And why am I here?

The Impact of Unmotivated Workplaces
Do you know that 40% of U.S. employees who lost or left their jobs during the Great Recession did so due to "insufficient work," otherwise known as "I guess I'll look again for something to re-file?"

The Great Recession is technically over, but slow workplaces are a tale as old as workplace time. Sometimes, a corporate earthquake (e.g., downsizings, looming layoffs, the departure of key staff or loss of big clients) can lead to an office-wide work chill. Other times, management can fail to keep the work flow going so all employees feel adequately busy and challenged on the job. In some cases, a few employees hoard all the "good" work projects to themselves, leaving other employees to fight for work scraps until they give up and leave.

In the work-starved environment, you might feel like you would be rocking the boat to ask for an oar to create forward motion toward a specific goal. You don't want to look like a show off (or like the dreaded, brown-nosing overachiever nobody likes!) by always asking for more work to do. So you dial it down a notch and adjust to the slow pace. You milk out your light workload over the course of five days. You've figured out this workplace isn't about taking the company to the next level; it's about getting to quitting time.

Over time, however, the slow-paced, under-motivated work environment can begin to sap your motivation, your energy level and even your self confidence! Completing your work with days to spare becomes a work style. Even worse, you begin to wonder if you could work in a fast-paced, highly-challenging environment ever again! The fear of adapting to a faster work pace (and failing at it!) can keep some employees stuck in a rut.

How to Motivate Yourself
Luckily, there are steps you can take to raise the bar on the low-bar workplace! Here are five ways to motivate yourself if you're stuck in a workplace that seems to have lost all motivation:

1. Look for training opportunities. You might look into training opportunities at work, or outside the workplace (a class or professional program). Go for that certification, take a night class, try something new. Do what it takes to feel more challenged outside of your job description. It's a good investment in yourself and motivates you in new, exciting ways.

2. Try to network more often. Networking takes time and practice, but you need to do it every so often to keep your confidence up! Go to the occasional networking event or after-hours business social. Look for ways to meet new professionals who enjoy new challenges and keep you feeling vibrant. Sometimes, simply speaking with someone who has energy and enthusiasm for their work -- even if it's not your chosen field of expertise -- can do wonders when you don't see the same professional passion in your co-workers!

3. Volunteer. Volunteering is a great way to do some good for others while also feeling good about yourself. It's a place you can shine when you can't shine at work because you don't want to rock the status quo. Even if it's only one hour per week, being able to utilize the same (or new and different) skills can do wonders for your mindset. It's a place you can unleash your inner rock star!

4. Talk to somebody who understands. Everyone has a story to tell about the job that was very long on time but very light on workload. Seek out someone who has been there, done that. How did they fill the time and what drove them to finally move on? What advice do they have for you? You might also look for like-minded co-worker(s) who feel like they need more challenge on the job, too. How can you quietly motivate each other?

5. Look for another job. If you are finishing a week's worth of work in one morning, or if the under-achieving vibe at work has made it necessary to downplay your talents and skills in order to fit in with colleagues, then it might be time to re-visit the job listings. You deserve to feel challenged by the work if that's what you want. You should never have to downplay your motivation and skill level. If you feel like you spend more time working through your boredom than actually doing the work, then it might be time to re-evaluate things.

Of course, you can try talking to management about the scarcity of work, but management might not share your concern for the problem. The lack of work is a big concern for you, however. Feel free to share your stories and advice, since you have so much time on your hands at work.


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