In software development, work tends to ebb and flow. There are periods where the entire team has tons of work on their plate to hit their deadlines. The team follows up these periods by shifting into maintenance mode, with little to do during the day. In our current worldwide situation, this pattern seems more apparent.
Testers and QA engineers follow this same pattern in most workplaces. Some weeks you are working non-stop, going through all phases of testing every single day with few breaks in between. Suddenly, work slows down to a trickle, and you find yourself with little or nothing to do during the workday.
The first reaction most people have to this is to scramble to find something to do. However, these cycles of less work are fertile grounds to improve your day-to-day job and your long-term career. Here are five ideas you can use to make the most of your downtime at work.
1. Learn a new skill to advance your career
In any profession, it's essential to establish a growth mindset. It's the understanding that you can develop your skills through learning and effort, as studied by psychologist Carol Dweck and popularized in her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.
The periods of work where you have some downtime are perfect for picking up a new skill you've meant to check out for your job. For example, you might have a chance to look into test automation to help out with your manual testing work. If you already work on automation, maybe you want to explore a new testing framework. Or you can dip your toes into a different area of expertise to complement your testing skills like DevOps.
It's a great idea to do this learning at work because you have access to resources you probably wouldn't have doing self-study at home. Many companies provide access to training material and online courses. Coworkers with the skills you want to gain can serve as a mentor during your journey.
The ideal topic to pick up for studying is something that both interests you personally and can positively impact your work. Any good boss won't mind you spending time at work improving yourself since it leads to improved performance and new insights in the long run.
2. Fix a broken or inefficient work process
Every organization has something that doesn't work as well as it should. For instance, developers continuously complain that the automated test suite the testers built takes forever to run and breaks all the time. Another example can be the inefficient daily standup meetings that no one enjoys attending because they often go off-topic.
If you don't have much work currently, analyze some of the pain points in your day-to-day work, and think about how to improve them. It can be a tool or service that should save the team time but ends up causing more problems than solutions. Processes and meetings that feel like a waste of time are also good areas to examine.
Once you find a few areas that can use some attention for improvement, share your findings with coworkers. Bringing your thoughts to others helps get the ball rolling on fixing these issues. Others have unique perspectives on the same issues you spotted, and eventually, you can form a solid plan with the backing of your teammates.
The key is not only to identify the problems and bring them to light but to provide solutions as well. Mentioning problems with no follow-through can get labeled as complaining, which doesn't serve anyone. Also, remember that it's not just coming up with a plan. It's all about execution, so see the solution through to the end.
3. Pair with others outside of your role
Most of the time, we spend our days among a group of people with similar interests and backgrounds than us. It happens in your daily life with friends outside work, and it also happens during the workday with your team. On most workdays, you'll spend the majority of your time with people performing the same kind of work as you.
You'll still interact with lots of other people beyond your direct teammates. If you're a tester, there are times where you'll spend moments working with the development team, project managers, and upper management. However, those times are minimal compared to how much time you spend with other testers.
It's easy to get trapped in a bubble and not step outside. If the team has a slow period of work, use it to spend time with other people outside of your role. If you're a tester, ask a developer if you can pair with them while they prepare for the next cycle of work. If you're a developer, talk with your project manager to help them plan for the upcoming sprint.
If other team members are willing to spend time with you, use it as an opportunity for both learning and teaching. Give them your knowledge as much as you take away from them, and both parties benefit greatly from different viewpoints. In the long run, this cross-pollination of skills leads to a better understanding of different roles and improved work overall.
4. Ask for more responsibility
If you regularly find yourself with little to no work, it might be a sign that you're outgrowing your role. It's good to know you're on top of your work and aren't stressing throughout your regular workdays. Most likely, it's making you feel bored and with a strong desire to find a new challenge.
If you're in this position with your current role, talk with your boss to explore the possibility of having additional responsibility in your day to day job. Going beyond your current role is both great for you and your organization - your career grows, and the company gains more value from your expanded abilities.
However, it's not a matter of just going to your boss and saying "I want more responsibility." Just like when coming up with a plan to fix a broken process, you need to know what you want. Define what "more responsibility" means to you. Good examples of this are transitioning to a manager role, leading an upcoming project, or taking charge of implementing a new process.
Ideally, the thing you want as more responsibility lines up with something that your organization needs at this moment. For example, you're a tester, and your company is struggling with finding a QA lead. If you are interested in leading a team, ask if you can step into this role.
Note that you should only seek additional responsibility if you're already on top of your current duties when there's enough work in the pipeline. Don't ask for more work if you're struggling to stay afloat with your tasks during periods with plenty to do, because you'll end up in a worse position.
5. Disconnect and recharge your batteries
Nowadays, we think that we have to be doing something - absolutely anything - at all times. It's not uncommon for us to feel guilty at work when we're not doing something. We're getting paid to work, after all, so if there's no work, we scramble to find something. It leads to stress, anxiety, and hurts your work performance by most likely working on the wrong things.
If there's a scheduled period of downtime at work where you know there won't be anything significant to handle for at least a week or two, why not step away for a bit? If you have accumulated vacation time - and most likely you do - schedule some time off from work to disconnect and recharge your batteries.
Taking time away from work yields many benefits for your work and your health. Studies show that taking vacation time significantly reduces stress, improves your sleep quality during and after vacation, and your productivity skyrockets upon returning to your job.
If you do take some time off from work, make sure to really disconnect from work. In today's age of always-connected workplaces, it's easy to find yourself still in "work mode." You won't have any of the benefits of relaxing your body and your mind.
Everyone has cycles of work where one week, you are barely keeping up with everything that's on your plate, and the next week you're bored with nothing to do. Instead of racing around trying to find anything to keep yourself busy, why not use this gift of free time to improve your work and your life?
You can take this free time to learn something new or fix an issue that improves your daily duties. Spend time with team members outside of your role to learn and teach, evolving everyone's views, and making the team tighter. If there's an opportunity, grab more responsibility to further your career. And if there's absolutely nothing to do for a while, use the time to plan a vacation and recharge yourself to come back to your job better than ever.
Using your downtime productively leads to improved productivity in the long run. You'll perform at your best when you have the space to study, discover, progress, and rejuvenate.
What other things do you do when you find yourself with free time at work? Share your experiences with others by leaving a comment below!