“Working hard or hardly working?”

Posted by jlubans on November 11, 2014

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Caption: Cyberloafing.
A friend sent me an article about non-work, “The Art of Not Working at Work.
It’s gotten me thinking about the mysteries of why some people work hard, bad boss or not, and why others loaf, regardless of circumstance.
The Atlantic magazine article opens with the story of a Menden, Germany worker who on his last day in the office, e-taunted 500 of his colleagues by announcing that he had not done any work for 14 years; and, as a result, he was “well prepared for retirement”.
Yes, the mega-slacker claims, he did consult with his supervisors about wanting work but to no avail; the employer denies any such consultation. Yes, he collected a lot of money none of which he intends to return. Yes, he now says he actually did do some work, And so on. The German press says, with a straight face, “The public work ethic had been wounded.”
“Bild” does mention – unlike the liberal Atlantic – another possible causal factor, the worker’s union: “… a city could hardly take action against (a) recalcitrant employee (and member of) the Municipal Employees Association. After 15 years of service and having reached the age of 40 one is virtually impossible to dismiss...”
The Atlantic story goes on to describe - through interviews with 40 self-identified slackers - why slackers slack and loafers loaf. Not surprisingly, it is not always the loafer’s intent or fault. Managers, who plan and direct work, often contribute to the slacker culture. And technology may influence – indeed facilitate – loafing.
While IT has improved personal productivity some managers and workers insist that the same number of workers is needed post-automation as there was pre-automation. So, even when automation does the job in 10% of the time of the manual/paper system, too many employees may be vying over too few hours of real work – so workers naturally adjust to fill in the day.
Why then, when work is scarce, does a manager not transfer people to other areas in greater need? It may be angst that a reduction in the number of “direct reports” will reduce the manager’s status and salary.
Technology may provide another excuse for soldiering or gold-bricking, as Frederick Taylor called the phenomenon back in the day: an employee e-tethered to the workplace will have less compunction about doing personal work at the office or on office time since he or she is online all the time. Taking time for one’s self during the day is only a fair trade off for being on the grid every minute, every day.
Curiously, is not the Atlantic’s cyberloafer only doing what Karl Marx famously suggested workers would do one Utopian day? Since “society (now) regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening….” Or, to bring it up to Web.2 speed, the liberated proletariat can now Facebook in the morning, Tweet in the afternoon and go YouTubing or LinkedIn-ing) in the evening or whatever else he or she wishes to do in cyberspace.
An organization’s culture may encourage loafing. A highly capable professional colleague – with an unstoppable work ethic and a do-it-now attitude - told me while her new job’s schedule is ideal for parenting her young family, there’s not enough work – she’s bored. When she asked her supervisor for more work he appeared incredulous. Why would she want more work? Obviously assigning more work – however capable the worker - would violate the company’s unstated work norm; better her talent go to waste than to rock the corporate boat.
The Atlantic’s story dredged up my memories of slogging through Max Weber’s lugubrious theories on the bureaucracy (governing by desk!) Some modern offices – public and private - do approximate his observation about the emerging bureaucrat, as paraphrased here:
“Employment by the organization is a career. The official is a full-time employee and looks forward to a life-long career. After a trial period they get tenure of position and are protected from (arbitrary) dismissal.”
Which reminds me how some people can get quite comfy in their jobs and customize their bureaucratic work life ala Weber’s “lifers” with late arrivals, long breaks, lengthy lunch hours, early departures and "special projects" (read hobbies). For me, the notion of squandering this much time when there were piles of work to do, along with the poor impression this behavior made upon the people doing real work, bothers me to this day. Yet, at least one organization in which I labored was reluctant to confront this behavior – doing so would have violated the inherited culture of conflict-avoidance. When abuse of work time is tacitly accepted, how can a sense of urgency - the quintessential condition for change – be introduced by any leader?

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Why are some workers motivated to do well and why are some not? I asked my most recent Democratic Workplace class a freebie true or false question on the final exam:
“Without close supervision, I personally would work less and/or make less effort.” Ten agreed unless closely supervised they would work less and seven said they would still work and make an effort. These were undergraduates and that may explain the bias toward close supervision. Still that’s a big difference - almost 2/3rd would slack off when the boss was out of the room! Lewin found, as you probably know, that the democratic leadership model was superior to the autocratic and laissez-faire models in getting results. I would hypothesize that those organizations with more of a democratic environment would have less hard core loafing than a top-down, command and control leadership. It’d be interesting to ask the Atlantic’s self-identified slackers which of these organizational models apply to their organizations.

@Copyright John Lubans 2014
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Posted by jlubans on November 11, 2014  •  06:17:31

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