Definition of Nonproductive Hours

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It’s only in management’s dreams that an employee is productive during 100 percent of his workweek or even for 100 percent of a workday. Generally, life just doesn’t work that way, and few workers can make the claim that they focus their total effort and attention on nothing but work for the entire length of a workday.

In almost all occupations, an employee’s workday comprises both productive and non-productive hours. Sometimes, the downtime is built into the work in traveling time, break time or waiting time. Nonproductive hours often include activities totally outside the scope of work.

What Are Nonproductive Hours?

Nonproductive hours are defined as work time not directly associated with the performance of a job or task. While social media use may leap to mind, not all nonproductive hours involve employee goof-off time. In fact, nonproductive hours are built into many everyday work routines.

Imagine the job of an office receptionist. He answers the phone and directs the call to the appropriate person. Then he sits and waits for the next phone call. He has nonproductive time built into his particular job.

Other nonproductive time is simply the result of imperfect communication between colleagues or shared office equipment. Consider a paralegal working in a law firm. He is sent in to make copies of discovery documents, but the attorney who is to give them to him is on the phone and gestures for him to wait. He waits, and in time, the attorney gets off the phone and identifies the documents to copy. The paralegal takes them into the copy room, but the machine is in use. Once again, he must wait.

Read More: Part Time Vs. Full Time Hours

Is Nonproductive Time Paid Time?

While an employer might like to cut down on nonproductive time, it may not be possible. Some employers try to accomplish this by asking workers to sign agreements providing for payment only for productive hours. Unpaid time would include work hours spent in travel for the employer, time spent waiting or in similar nonproductive time.

However, under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, it’s illegal for an employer to pay employees for productive time only. Employees are entitled to be paid for both productive time and nonproductive time. The employment contract might legally provide for different rates of pay for productive and nonproductive hours as long as the employee receives the minimum wage.

And, while an employer cannot force his workers to accept a deal in which they get nothing for time spent waiting for work, it’s OK under the FLSA for the parties to agree that the rate of pay the employees get for productive time is intended by the parties as compensation for all the hours that employees work, including waiting time.

Goofing-Off and Nonproductive Hours

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average employee in the United States works 8.8 hours a day. But how much of this time is productive, and how much is nonproductive? In the early years of the 21st century, experts estimated that most employee had 6.5 hours of productive time in an 8-hour workday. Today, that number might be considerably less, thanks, in part, to the internet.

As a result of a study of office workers in the United Kingdom, researchers came to the conclusion that the productive hours in an average workday have dropped considerably, while nonproductive hours have increased.

In this study, most nonproductive time (1 hour and 45 minutes a day of work time) was spent on the internet, reading the news and checking social media. Another 40 minutes were spent chatting with coworkers about non-work matters and an additional 30 minutes talking or texting to friends and family. One more hour of the workday went to smoke breaks, coffee breaks or breaks for snacking or preparing food at the office. And the average employee devoted almost a half-hour a day toward looking for a new job.

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About the Author

Teo Spengler earned a J.D. from U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall. As an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau, she practiced before the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before opening a plaintiff's personal injury practice in San Francisco. She holds both an M.A. and an M.F.A in creative writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Her work has appeared in numerous online publications including USA Today, Legal Zoom, eHow Business, Livestrong, SF Gate, Go Banking Rates, Arizona Central, Houston Chronicle, Navy Federal Credit Union, Pearson, Quicken.com, TurboTax.com, and numerous attorney websites. Spengler splits her time between the French Basque Country and Northern California.