Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The phenomenon of "do nothing" jobs

The Atlantic has recently published an interesting article called “The Art of Not Working at Work” which begins with the story of a German worker who, upon retirement, informed his coworkers that he had not actually done anything for the previous 14 years:
He had not been avoiding work for 14 years; as his department grew, his assignments were simply handed over to others. “…I have always offered my services, but it’s not my problem if they don’t want them,” he said.
Setting aside the usual moralizing about lazy workers, this dynamic of “nothing to do” is (in my experience) very common yet largely unstudied. I’ve had two such experiences over the past 22 years and chatting with co-workers suggests I’m not unique.

For a year or so (in 2003/4) I worked for the Alberta WCB. I didn’t care much for the organization (e.g., cube farms, surveillance, lots of corporate rah-rah interspersed with periodic sackings), the folks I worked with were, for the most part, very nice people. The problem in my job was that there was virtually nothing to do. For example, I completed my entire January to December 2004 work plan by February 18, 2004 (and I didn't go all that hard).

There were a number of inter-related factors at play there. The first was that the job was filed mostly to keep the budget line within the department. I certainly was grateful for the paycheque (at first) but there was simply no need for the position (it was eventually eliminated). This “empire building” (or maintaining) is a pretty common dynamic in most organizations I’ve observed.

The second was I was hired as a policy wonk but the organization was averse to policy change. So we would get handed policy problems and then told to solve the problem without changing policy. Which was impossible (they were problems with policy!) and lead to disengagement and cynicism. I did ask for more work, but there wasn’t any to be had and only an insane worker would repeatedly advertise to the boss that “I don’t have anything to do.”

Although there certainly were busy units at the WCB (e.g., claims), I don’t think this was specific to my shop. The woman who shared a cube wall with me (and I think worked in purchasing) spent her time day-trading stocks on the phone (harder to monitor than the computer). She was so loud about it that I eventually started wearing earplugs.

Contrary to what most people seemed to think about do-nothing jobs, the experience was vastly stressful. Try looking busy for 90% of the year with no real work to do! There are only so many coffee dates and webinars you can take. I have a pretty rich inner life but it was boring as hell (I likened it to jail) and I lived in terror that someone would find out I was doing nothing and I’d get sacked with no prospect of references. I expect that, if I could have withstood the stress, I likely could have continued on there indefinitely.

Anyhow, the Atlantic article offers an interesting window into the real world of organizations. Your stories are welcomed in the comments section.

-- Bob Barnetson

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