There are times when you are supposed to stay alert but nothing is happening. Waiting without making noise in a deer stand for a nice buck or doe to walk by so you can shoot it. Waiting in her waiting room for the doctor to see you. Waiting for your cousin while the other passengers stream off the plane. All those situations can occur naturally.
It looks to me like quite a few jobs have standing around at the ready built into them. You get hired to answer the phone but nobody calls. You can hired to check ID's at the gym but nobody else comes in.
Sometimes, the image of a cat or a fox waiting for its dinner to run out of its nest is used to depict the need to stay quiet but ready for action at any unpredictable moment. Some animals depend on their ability to stay ready in waiting for their livelihood. I wonder how often a sleepy cat dozes off and lets its prey escape.
Several times, I have heard complaints from people who are supposed to be alert and ready but lack other business to do in their jobs that such moments are especially unpleasant. I think if I were in the right management or data analysis job, I would try to gather data on productivity, satisfaction and errors from people required to stay alert but forbidden to do other things and compare it to data on those variables for people told to find other things to do (Dust? Call customers? Remind people of their upcoming appointments during the next few days? Data entry or analysis?). They might even be told to spend the time they can on their own business (Reading? Chatting or video visits by way of Skype or Google Hangout? Answering email? Paying bills online?).
I imagine there is already a ton of data on this question since it seems basic to many jobs. I put "require employees to stand at the ready" into Google and quickly learned that, for instance, the Utah government differentiates between "being on-call" and "being on stand-by". It appears that a person "on call" is not required to be engaged in work-related activities until and unless called while a person on "stand-by" is paid the same as when fully engaged and is ready at any time.
Sometimes, job rules and whole conceptions of human nature are divided roughly into two camps, the easy and the tough. The easy pictures people as basically good, engaged, rational and honest. The tough pictures them in need of steady supervision, punishment, and strict rule enforcement. As far as I can tell, both pictures apply and neither is always more accurate or superior. I would still like to see performance data since I nearly always suspect that happier, freer people do better for both the organization and themselves.
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