Tracking Effort During COVID-19: Information for Principal Investigators

As an individual with first-hand knowledge of project personnel and their ability to perform responsibilities while in a remote working status, the Principal Investigator must play a critical role in providing effort information that is a reasonable reflection of activities taking place during COVID-19.

In determining an individual’s effort distribution, PIs should consider the following questions:

  • What percentage of anticipated project work has been able to continue remotely?
  • Is there a percentage of work that has been reallocated, either to other active grants or productive university activities?
  • Is there a material impact to the project’s ability to meet project milestones?
  • Does each individual’s distribution make sense, in context with the aims of the project and the individual’s responsibilities, abilities and access to raw materials and facilities?

Upon determining the reasonable effort distribution for project personnel, the PI should document effort information using one of the following methods.  Please check with your grant manager to determine which method you should use.

The information collected for every individual who was working on an active grant on or after March 17, 2020, should include:

  • Working effort: percentage of effort expended in support of the grant in that month.
  • Idle effort: percentage of effort previously allocated to a grant whereby an individual is not able to perform prescribed research responsibilities.

The information collected and recorded by the PI will then be verified by a Grant Manager, and entered into iForms. Idle effort information should be provided contemporaneously, so projects should follow the below timeline for collecting and entering idle effort information for exempt staff to University systems. Please note that effort for non-exempt employees should be entered more frequently.

  March - April May June July August
Idle effort provided by: May 15 June 26 July 24 August 10 September 9
iForms entered by: June iForms deadline July iForms deadline August iForms deadline Aug/Sept iForms deadlines September iForms deadline


Other Resources:


The concept of idle effort and what is eligible

I have staff who are working full-time, but not on the projects we had originally anticipated. Should this be counted as “idle” time?

Idle project effort is the portion of time previously allocated to a sponsored project that is no longer in direct support of the project’s research aims is considered “idle.”  This includes time/effort whereby the individual is not able to work productively or at full capacity and impacts the project’s ability to meet scheduled milestones or deliverables.  However, if a staff member is able to work on a different project, his/her effort should be allocated to the grant(s) s/he is actually working on (even if that is different than pre-COVID effort distribution or planned effort distribution). In no case should personnel be moved to a project if their time on that project will be idle.

In other words, a project could be considered idle, but a person not be idle because his/her effort has been reallocated to active projects not impacted by COVID.

Do idle effort reporting/tracking guidelines apply to subcontracts? What about foundations or industry-funded projects?

These guidelines apply to all externally and internally funded sponsored research grants with effort allocated on or after March 17th. This includes foundations, INCOMING subawards TO Duke, industry, and federal grants, along with internally awarded projects (fund codes beginning with 153x or 453x). OUTGOING subawards FROM Duke to other organizations should not report idle effort (only effort of Duke employees need be tracked/reported).

Is this just for university effort? Or should it reflect TPE or PDC/clinical effort?

No. Information recorded should be a true reflection of “idle or “inactive” time so that Duke is able to accurately report the impact of COVID 19 on research activities.  It is critical to provide detailed effort records (individual-by-individual, grant-by-grant) to document idle time in case of audit or if sponsors request information related to project delays.  This documentation will also be necessary to support any requests for project extensions and/or funding supplements if necessary to accomplish project goals.

Staff have had activities that are COVID-related (i.e. lab close down, town halls, information sessions, etc.). Is time devoted to these activities considered idle time?

It is considered “idle time” if two factors are present:

  1. This has impacted their ability to carry out the specific aims of the projects.
  2. And it is in a material way (taking a week to move operations off-campus does equal a material amount of effort)

How idle time is designated and reported today must align with:

  • Documentation for programmatic delays described in progress reports
  • Requests for supplemental funding
  • Justification for a future no-cost extension request
  • Effort certification later this year
  • Substantiate removal of idle effort should it be determined to be unallowable at some point in the future
  • Support grant-by-grant reporting requirements


Instead of a staff member remaining idle on a project, can I redistribute their effort to another project? What if the work I would have them do is novel work that is not in the original scope of work?

The staff member should be paid on the grant(s) he or she is actually working on (even if that is different than pre-COVID effort distribution); AND any deviation from the original approved scope of work must have sponsor approval before that (“novel”) work that was “not part of the original scope of work/design” can take place.

Collection and reporting

Who is responsible for collecting information about idle effort?

An individual, usually the PI, who has first-hand knowledge of work performed on the project since March 17 should provide information about idle effort.  Only the PI, with financial responsibility for the code, can enter this information in myRESEARCHhome.  If the project opts to use a collection method that is not myRESEARCHhome (i.e., Idle Effort Worksheet or spreadsheet) the effort information should still be provided by someone with first-hand knowledge of the project personnel and work being completed.

How often should idle time be reported?

Idle effort should be reported monthly, by the end of the month, but no later than the 15th of the following month.  For example, effort for March/April should be reported by April 30th, but no later than May 15th.  And more frequently for non-exempt staff.

Other considerations

Should I move my staff’s effort onto other projects to give them work to do while they are remote? This means that they are not working on project A as I thought they would, but they are working on project B because the work can be conducted remotely.

This is up to the employees’ supervisor.  When determining how best to direct staff efforts, keep in mind:

  • Effort should be allocated and charged to the project(s) that s/he is actually working on
  • The employee may not have idle time (because his/her effort shifted from project A to project B), but the project (project A) may still have idle time (because the project aims could not be completed remotely)
  • The employees’ effort should not be double-counted.  When entering idle effort in myRESEARCHhome for the impacted project (project A), you should choose the option that applies (either “Some Idle Time” or “All Work Stopped”) on the project card, and enter in the NOTES section that the staff member(s) (by name) have moved to 0% effort because s/he could not perform the needed duties on project A remotely, so moved effort was moved to project B instead.**

**This is an important step because 1) we shouldn’t associate staff effort with project A (even as idle) if s/he was working on project B.  In other words, we cannot bill the project A sponsor for idle time because 1) the staff member was not idle, and 2) we are now charging the project B sponsor for the staff member’s effort.  Also, if down the road we report that the project was impacted (either in a progress report, supplemental funding or no cost extension request), we need to have documentation that the PROJECT was impacted (even if the PERSON wasn’t idle).


Can we apply for mid-term no cost extension due to COVID-19?

If necessary, yes.  But if the justification for NCE is related to COVID19, it’s better to wait if possible.  NIH has indicated their willingness to be flexible about NCE requests as a result of COVID19. 

Note: this is highly project-specific and the answer may be different based on the unique circumstances of the particular grant terms.  Please submit specific questions via the Ask A Question feature in the Research Help widget in myRESEARCHhome (