Nothing gets done in August (and that's OK)

Aug. 1, 2012 at 7:37 AM ET

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Surprise: A little slacking off may not be so bad.

Everyone knows August can be a slow month at the office, but here's the thing your boss may not want to admit: That's probably just fine. 

In fact, a little slacking off can make workers a lot more productive in the long run, and may even leave room in the day to come up with some great, new ideas, many experts say.

That’s a lesson that’s been largely lost in the tough times of the last few years, as workers have dealt with layoff fears and pressure to work harder than ever.

“A lot of managers instill this feeling amongst their employees where they can’t take a break,” said John Trougakos, an assistant professor of management at the University of Toronto. “I think that, long term, has costs to the employers (and) to the productivity.”

Trougakos, who studies workplace dynamics, compares a well-run office to an Olympic team -- a timely analogy given how distracting the Olympics will be at many offices this month.

Video: Sorry boss, I'm watching the Olympics

Yes, the coaches are going to push their athletes to train hard. But they know better than to push them so hard that they get fatigued or injured and can’t stick the landing when it matters most.

In the office, Trougakos said, a worker who never gets a break will inevitably get tired. That makes the worker less productive and more likely to make mistakes, potentially costing a company more money than if they had just taken a break in the first place.

Of course, the current economy has left many workers feeling nervous about stepping away for a lunch break, let alone slacking off for a few days or taking a real vacation. That can make it harder to slow down even in the dog days of August, when senior bosses have headed to their summer homes, Congress is in recess and all of Europe is on vacation, crisis or no.

But some argue that in this high-stakes environment, it’s more important than ever to take time to recharge and come up with that great, new, innovative idea.

Erik Brynjolfsson is director of the MIT Center for Digital Business, so you’d think he’d be the type of person who wouldn’t walk around the block without his smart phone in hand. But recently, Brynjolfsson took a vacation to a place in Iceland where he had no Internet service.

“It was a very happy experience to be able to send that away message on my e-mail and tell people, ‘Sorry, I’m not available,’” he said.

Brynjolfsson, whose research includes studies on worker productivity, believes people are more productive, and more likely to solve a particularly tough problem, if they have a chance to recharge.

That may mean literally turning off your phone and e-mail for a week or two, or it may just mean stepping away from your desk to take a long walk on a slow August day.

Your boss may well thank you for it.

“People make the mistake, when times are tough, (of trying) to squeeze out all time for relaxation, and I think that’s a mistaken instinct,” Brynjolfsson said. “You have to reserve that break time, even if it seems counterintuitive. In the long run, it leaves you better off.”

There are other potential benefits – and drawbacks – to a month in which many corner offices largely sit empty.

Teresa Amabile, a professor at Harvard Business School, recently co-wrote a book called "The Progress Principle," about how workers are motivated. The book was based on an analysis of thousands of daily diary entries provided by white-collar workers.

Amabile said they found workers didn’t actually slack off when the boss was away but did feel more in control of their workday.

“It just kind of frees up people more if they are kind of their own boss for a week,” she said.

The researchers also found that workers were more productive before taking a vacation of their own.

Of course, there are drawbacks to key people being out of the office, especially if no one is there to do approve expense reports or provide critical information that no one else has.

Some workers also may find themselves busier than ever, if they are already stretched thin by layoffs and productivity demands and now have to take on the work of their bosses or co-workers. That’s an especially big problem in offices that don’t plan well and end up with too many people on vacation when there’s actual work to be done.

On the plus side, when a lot of people are gone, a lot of meetings get canceled and fewer e-mails get sent. That can free up a huge amount of time for getting the “real” work done, or just catching up.

“The time pressure has become so relentless for so many people most of the year,” Amabile said. “It’s just wonderful when it’s not there, or it’s not as bad.”

Earlier this week, Amabile herself was relishing a quiet day at the office. Instead of the typical six hours of meetings, the summer doldrums had left Amabile with just two items on her calendar.

“I have to say, I love it,” she said.

Related: Here’s how to survive August at work

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