Jason JunJason Jun


Dennis Nørmark


“Maybe it’s just a taboo to say that work has become meaningless. Everybody goes about proclaiming how busy they are, and everybody else assumes that they’re doing something important,”

Without the leisure class, mankind would never have emerged from barbarism.

In The German Ideology, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels talked of a society in which you could “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.”

In the 1960s, the US Senate published a report predicting that a working week of 14 hours would be realistic by 2000. The influential think tank the RAND Corporation predicted that about 2% of the population would be capable of producing everything the nation needed.

The seemingly endless expansion of office work led authors like Aldous Huxley and Herman Melville to contemplate the soulless nature of office work. In Prague, Franz Kafka wrote three novels and numerous short stories about bureaucratic monsters and labyrinthine corridors full of archives. But no matter how often writers questioned the utility of office work and whether it was “real work”, it ultimately triumphed and its dominance spread all over the world.

One significant recurring and salient feature emerges from this retrospective look at work. Every time somebody figures out how to make a process more efficient and save time, somebody else finds new way to use that time.

According to Professor Alison Wolf of King’s College London, who has studied the phenomenon, we are now in danger of creating positions just to absorb the surplus of graduates.

Other studies have shown that those with qualifications in, e.g. psychology and architecture rarely deploy the skills that they learned. Instead, they are taken on because companies now use a degree as the basic criterion by which they filter job applications. Nobody questions the idea that their company needs the best brains, and so they often recruit people with master’s degrees for jobs that other people could do just as well.

In other words, more than a whole working day per week is spent not working, which suggests that Keynes wasn’t far off the mark – it’s just that a great deal of the leisure time he envisaged is happening during working hours, when people are supposed to be paid to be productive.

“Ideally, you could, of course, go to your boss and say that you have nothing to do,” he explains, “but doing nothing is a major taboo, and bosses unable to find work for their staff – which is frequently the case – will often come a cropper. Sometimes, employees drop hints that they have time on their hands and are ignored, because it is, of course, difficult to invent work that doesn’t exist.

Many companies do just fine, despite their employees doing very little.

Whenever people find out that their work doesn’t take very long to do, they are happy at first, relax a bit and while away the hours on YouTube. But after a few years, it becomes unsatisfactory. People start to think ‘Is this really all there is?’ and sink into an existential crisis. Some even suffer from conditions like boreout,” says Paulsen.

Stress can be a function of having too much to do, but deep boredom, lack of challenges and meaningless inertia are also triggers.

This is common in – but not exclusive to – organisations that pay people in units of time. The aim is not just to pull the wool over the manager’s eyes. They don’t want to face up to the fact that they are not really needed, either. They’re not there to do stuff, but to have a job. To be someone who goes to work.

Consultants can easily spend three hours pretending to do something, but a driver can’t pretend to drive a bus. And yet both are paid to put in a certain number of hours, and so they do. It’s just easier for one of them to “cheat” than the other.

People start looking for their next job before their current project ends. The work they do is – rationally enough – all about showing what they would be capable of next time, whether or not it is beneficial to the project at hand.

The washing machine was supposed to make life easier – we would be able to wash clothes much more quickly and have more free time. But what actually happened? Instead of washing our clothes once a month, we now do it every day. The car was supposed to free up time because it was far faster than a horse-drawn carriage. But it has led to us driving farther and spending more time on transport. E-mail would free up time because it was ten times faster to write than a letter and the message arrived right away. The outcome? Instead of spending a few minutes a day writing a letter, we now spend two hours on e-mails, because we send 100 times as many “electronic letters”. In other words, there is a paradox inherent in acceleration – new technology means that we end up doing more of the activity from which it was supposed to liberate us.

For example, one Finnish study found that the higher your salary, the more likely you are to report that much of the working day is spent on empty work and other unproductive ways of spending your time.

Parkinson’s Law was discovered and developed by the British marine historian Cyril Northcote Parkinson (1909–93), who published and summarised his ideas in an article in The Economist in 1955. The article contained a range of ideas and hypotheses, but the one that has been handed down for posterity and which bears his name states simply: “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”.

Parkinson concluded that, “The fact is that the number of officials and workload bear no relation to each other.” Extrapolating on this, he came up with his now famous law. His hypothesis is that if people are given 10 hours to do a job, they will take 10 hours, but if given 25 hours to do exactly the same, it will miraculously end up taking 25 hours.

... being more busy or less busy isn’t a very robust measure of how much you actually get done. You can be busy doing very little.

In a sawmill, everybody can see it if you slow down. In an office, no one can tell how fast you’re really working and what you’re really up to based on mouse clicks and tapping on a keyboard. As a result, Parkinson’s Law works better backstage.

Most organisations are so convinced of their own rational and streamlined ways of doing business that they think only the company next door falls prey to this kind of mindless ramping up of the number of hours worked and the amount of admin.

Our first piece of advice to counter pseudowork’s mission creep is quite simply that you should stop saying that you’re busy – and go home.

In an ideal world, it is inept and evil people who stop good things happening. Remove the evil and the incompetent, and the problem is solved. But we don’t live in an ideal world. We live in a world where people want to do their best, act rationally and find solutions. It’s just that when they do so, they inadvertently cause more problems than they solve.

“It’s always tempting to ‘improve’ an organizational structure, or to rewrite the company policy to address a new situation, or to create committees to improve employee morale. But experience shows that you generally end up with something that is no more effective than what you started with.” Adams describes some of the people who do this work as “one level removed” from the real work in the company. He explains: “If you’re writing code for a new software release, that’s fundamental, because you’re improving the product. But if you’re creating a policy about writing software, then you are one level removed. If you’re testing a better way to assemble a product, that’s fundamental. But if you’re working on a task force to develop a suggestion system then you’re one level removed.

What does all the pseudowork in this chapter have in common? Good intentions. It all sounds promising on the face of it, will make the company more efficient and solve problems. The trouble is that it usually just ends up wasting people’s time – time they could have spent on something more meaningful – or even at home.

They justify their jobs by looking elsewhere and then saying, ‘We need some of that – and that – because everybody else has it’.”

“We now have to write reports about things hardly anybody is interested in,”

The administrative layer continues to grow steadily due to work mainly done by other people. Each time, the reason is “quality assurance” or that they have to emulate other institutions in the sector.

One particular reason that Frederik finds pseudowork so frustrating is that the prioritisation of unnecessary work that adds no value means that he has less time for work that he believes does create value, and which he’s actually good at.

Frederik also notes that approximately 2/3 of the material he uploads for students is never downloaded. But since he is judged on how much he uploads onto the digital platform, he just has to live with the ridiculous situation that it’s considered more important than getting on with the actual core task. “It’s pointless to upload so much, but I do it to prove I’ve done it, and that students had the opportunity to read it.”

Competition means that if everyone stands up, some people will stand on their tiptoes, and soon everybody else has to do the same. It’s all about not being in a worse position than anybody else.

The culture of positivity leads, in various ways, to flab. At least criticism leads to issues being explored in depth and things being abolished. With positivity, it’s the other way around. We just keep doing more and more new things, ever faster, and ever more superficially.

As the German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel wrote, the spirit comes into being only by “looking the negative in the face and dwelling on it”.

Historically, quantifying work in terms of time dates back to the Industrial Revolution. Before then, work was primarily part of family life, for the tenant farmer as much as for the lord. Apart from day-labourers, work was mainly a family affair, a family duty. It was the industrialisation of the 19th century that made time the default unit of measurement for work.

Bored employees end up feeling isolated, because they can’t talk to anybody about all the nothing they’ve been doing.

companies often don’t have identifiable owners. Nobody is really that bothered about productivity.

Doing nothing is extremely tedious. It wears you and your motivation down. I wasn’t even conscious of the damage it was doing to my self-esteem. but you build self-esteem by accomplishing things – and I wasn’t.

People think that as long as someone pays someone for ‘something’, then that something must have value. That’s not necessarily the case.

“You make sure it looks good and reads well, because everything has to be right if anybody actually does read it. But then we hear them ask about things that are clearly explained in the papers. We don’t say anything. It would be hugely embarrassing all round. So they pretend they read the papers, and we pretend that we believe they read them.”