Let people read during lulls on the job

I’ve been working two part-time jobs for the last couple of years, and both underscored something to me I hadn’t encountered much previously: Companies don’t like their staff to casually read when they’re on the clock.

And I sincerely don’t understand why.

I think… I think?… that it’s what’s believed to be the optics of it. “What if,” their theory seems to go, “someone from the public spots you when you’re on shift… and you’re reading? Well, you can only imagine what they’d think.”

I get that. To a point. Because that would look like the person has so much downtime in their duty, in their workday they’re being paid for, that they have time to crack open a book. That mustn’t be a very busy position, someone may think.
Sure, I can see that coming across as more negative than positive.

But… the flipside of that situation seems to go ignored by the same policy makers: There are plenty of jobs in, say, station-based customer service positions — where the staff member has a specific place they need to stay — where at times there there simply isn’t a customer to help or anything else to do.
No one needs a ticket scanned or needs directions.
No one is asking questions or has to be cashed out or needs assistance with anything at all.
There’s a lull. Sometimes that lull can last only seconds or minutes. Sometimes it can go much, much longer. I once worked a particularly long solo shift at a small table at the far end of a large convention room floor, and a total of three people made the trek over there to talk to me that entire day.
One was a co-worker who felt bad that I was over there on my own.
One was a public passerby who felt bad that I was over there on my own.
And one — one — actually came for the information I was all set to provide for any who needed it.
You want to talk about a slow day? Been there.
And in those sometimes mind-numbingly inactive situations, what is the realistic hope of policy makers for the optics of those people to onlookers? Look like you’re busy — or at least not bored — even if there’s literally nothing to do, seems to be the guideline.

For any who think this should be easy to accomplish, pretend for a moment that you’re… let’s say… a person scanning tickets the public presents you with. You’re at a podium or small desk or at a counter of some sort. Maybe you work for a movie theatre or a museum.
Guests have been trickling in on and off, but right now, no one’s been arriving for a bit. It’s a lull. You have a chair, at least (something not enough businesses allow staff to use*), so you can sit while you wait, but… then what?
Your paperwork is in order. Maps or info pamphlets, if you have such things, are restocked and tidy. You and your station are as presentable as they can be. And still no one is coming in.
So you wait.
And wait.
And wait.
You chance a glance at your watch, because surely 20 minutes have passed since the last time you looked. But no, it’s only been six.
Your lunch break isn’t for another almost hour and a half. And you’re right here, doing more of this, until then.
So you wait.
And wait.

Don’t look at your phone, though. Oh, and also, certainly don’t open a book and start reading.

Just… wait.

How’s that visualization going? Because I’m getting bored just typing it, let alone living it.
And of course, people do live it, sometimes regularly. Sometimes on every day they have a shift. For months and maybe even years of their life.

Were you super engaged during that mental exercise? Super jazzed having nothing to do, but to also not look like you have nothing to do, while you waited for the next customer to show up so you could finally do something?
Would it have been nice to be able to… let’s say… escape from that, if only in brief bits? Or would you rather be obliged to endure that monotony?

Ok. Now let’s pretend you’re a customer. You’ve bought a ticket for your movie or to go into the museum, etc., and you’re walking up to the little podium and the person who scans the tickets. And you see them turn to you from their thousand-yard stare as you approach. They scan your ticket and answer any questions you have about where you should head, and you walk away and they’re done until the next person comes along.

Would it truly matter to you if, as you approached, that ticket-scanner had been reading a book instead of staring off into space?

Given that either way their attention would of course turn to you as you approach, and they would do their duty the same way as you needed their service, would it really matter to you if that attention was up from a book?

Why couldn’t — why shouldn’t — that person be allowed to read a book if the nature of their job includes downtime while they have to wait between times of active work? The customers approach to get their tickets scanned or make their gift shop purchases or to ask questions, and the staff members duly put their book down and engage with the public and do their job to the best of their ability.
So from a real world customer perspective, nothing that they need done has changed: It’s all done as efficiently and effectively as if the person didn’t have a book to read.

Personally, I’d much rather see an employee reading a book as I approached their station rather than them feeling or told that they have to act busy when there’s literally nothing to do. And them reading would certainly be more preferable to them zoning out on their phones, which is a growing social problem.

Companies should let their stationed employees read whenever there’s legitimate downtime on the job. It wouldn’t affect their attention to customers, it would let them do something productive and possibly educational and wouldn’t affect the quality of their work, and it spares them the stress of being expected to look busy in a position that inherently isn’t busy all the time.

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I rest my case.

*Not letting stationary staff use chairs while working, or even in between serving customers, also seems perverse. I assume that’s all about optics again: Not wanting your staff to appear to be anything but literally standing and ready to serve customers. Which, FYI, seems to be a North American phenomenon.
In Europe — so often of late the tip of the spear on best interests for the public — the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA) recommends providing seating for customer service reps as best practice. As long as sitting doesn’t interfere with the job, chairs are widely allowed to be used by staff.