How to Deal

How to benefit from having free time at work

By Lily Garcia
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, October 29, 2009; 10:36 AM

I was recently lucky enough to find a new job at an increase in pay, with better benefits, a more flexible schedule and more interesting work. The only problem is, I literally have nothing to do. I have been here for several weeks, and I have grown tired of asking my supervisor for assignments. She tells me that things are just slow at the moment, but it doesn't seem like the more senior members of my team are bored out of their minds. I am starting to feel like I am getting on her nerves, but I think I will go crazy if I have to spend yet another day playing solitaire. Yesterday I even caught myself falling asleep at my desk. What should I do?

By now your supervisor is surely well aware of the fact that you are available to take on assignments. She has repeatedly told you that your department is going through a slow period. Every time you reiterate your request for work, therefore, you are essentially questioning her word. For the sake of your relationship, I think it is time to stop asking.

Yet you obviously cannot afford to while away your days playing computer games. Even as you wait patiently for assignments, you could be working on implementing a self-directed orientation and professional development plan. Unlike those of us who are forced to hit the ground running when we start a new job, you have the luxury of thoroughly exploring your workplace and capitalizing upon its network of relationships and benefits.

Read your employee manual cover to cover. Ask questions about HR policy. Schedule a meeting with a member of your HR department to explore the nuances of your organization's benefits ¿ the stuff that employees too seldom take advantage of, like computer purchase assistance programs, gym membership subsidies, discounts at local retailers. Make sure that you are fully optimizing the advantages of working there.

Concentrate as well on establishing early relationships with potential mentors and allies. Get to know the organizational chart and decide who you would like to meet. Who is doing a job that you might see yourself doing in a few years? Who is in a position to collaborate with you on projects (once you actually have some to complete)? Who makes important decisions that affect your work? Start inviting people out for coffee. Get to know what they do, why they joined the organization, their perspective on things. Later on, when you are swamped, you will find that these informal networks are invaluable to you in getting your job done efficiently and charting a course for advancement within your organization.

Beyond your organization, you could focus on developing your external professional network. Identify the leading membership organization for your industry or profession. If it seems like a worthwhile investment, join the group. Membership in reputable trade organizations usually comes with access to webinars, white papers, listservs, networking events and other resources that might make your job easier while connecting you with people who share something important in common. Your organization might have a group membership of which you can partake, or they might be willing to pay for all or part of your membership fee.

While you still have the time, you should also think carefully about what training might complement your existing skills and find out how much of this may be covered by your employer. Some organizations budget a certain number of training dollars per employee, usually for predetermined programs. Others keep a larger pool of money on reserve and address training needs on an individual basis. Ask your supervisor or human resources how your organization pays for training and come up with a proposal that fits your means.

In addition to training, you may benefit from longer range educational investments like certificate programs or advanced degrees. Organizations that subsidize certificate or degree programs usually have a waiting period in place for new employees and require employees who depart within a certain number of years to repay what they have been given. Nevertheless, it is not too early for you to fully explore how your employer might be able to support these aspirations.

So put away the solitaire and leave your supervisor in peace. You should seize this rare opportunity to actually get to know your employer and industry and calmly think about the direction of your career. If you follow my advice, you will remain happily occupied for weeks. And, once the pace of your department's work picks up again, you may long for the days when you had time to reflect upon your job rather than just doing it.

Lily Garcia has offered employment law and human resources advice to companies of all sizes for more than 10 years. To submit a question, e-mail We reserve the right to edit submitted questions for length and clarity and cannot guarantee that all questions will be answered.

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