Waiting, waiting – a hidden feature of organisational life

What effect does waiting have on the efficiency and effectiveness of our organisations? Does it slow down our productivity or is it an opportunity for ‘down time’?

Flock of birds

After arriving late at work due to a delayed train, my day began pretty much the same as most of my work days - with a scan of my to-do list. Featuring fairly high on the list were the following: chase up colleague who said he was going to book rooms for student tutorials; contact journal editor to see why we haven’t had any feedback on the article we submitted a few months ago; call the IT department to repeat request for help with new laptop; reschedule a meeting that has already been postponed twice; remind co-author they said they would get back to me with some ideas for a research project we’re working on. 

I am guessing that your to-do list, even if it is probably more interesting than mine, is not that different. In fact, if you were to look at how your typical working day pans out, I can confidently predict that a good proportion of it is spent waiting for someone or something.

We hear a lot these days about the speeding up of time due to ever-faster electronic communications, but the reality is that we are all interdependent; a delay further down the line means someone, somewhere is waiting. Like Vladimir and Estragon, the characters in Samuel Beckett’s play ‘Waiting for Godot’, we are all compelled to wait. Sometimes, it is we who cause other people to wait, and so the endless cycle of waiting and delay continues.

Our lives, both at work and at home, are so imbued with waiting that we rarely have a conscious awareness of it. We might notice if we get to a meeting on time and have to spend 15 minutes waiting for everyone else to arrive, in the same way we notice that late train. The kind of waiting that infiltrates our working schedule is an almost taken-for-granted type of waiting. 

Although ubiquitous, waiting is therefore a hidden feature of organisational life that is infrequently acknowledged in practice and is curiously absent from academic research. One of the reasons is that most waiting is ‘waiting-while-doing-something-else’, rather than solely waiting. For example, those times when we’re working on several projects at once, picking one up as a piece of necessary information comes in, setting the others aside while we’re waiting for colleagues to respond, and so on. In other words, we’re still keeping busy with other tasks at the same time as waiting to progress with others.

What we do know about waiting is that it is more often than not a negative experience that is associated with feelings of powerlessness and helplessness and with a sense of creeping inefficiency and of time being wasted. We can all relate to that sense of frustration that comes with waiting for the colleague who repeatedly fails to deliver on a promised piece of work, or the equipment that keeps on breaking down.

If we were to extrapolate from all the individual experiences of waiting that take place, what effect does waiting have on the efficiency and effectiveness of our organisations? There is a great deal of discussion taking place at the moment about Britain’s ‘productivity puzzle’; perhaps all that waiting does really matter. 

However, waiting isn’t necessarily all bad, it is not just a passive experience that is thrust upon us without our say-so. A day with no waiting, crammed full of activity and without any down-time or ‘thought-time’ to allow us to decompress is likely to be highly stressful and ultimately just as unproductive. Waiting might, in some circumstances, be a pleasurable interlude, providing an unexpected opportunity to reflect, to connect with others, or to catch up with other tasks. One thing is for sure though; waiting is an endemic feature of organisational life. A conscious appraisal of the waiting we do during our work and how we use our waiting time to best effect, will be time well spent. Now though, it’s time to get to my next meeting, I don’t want to keep people waiting.

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