The Art of Not Working at Work
November 4, 2014 6:19 AM   Subscribe

At first, the ability to check email, read ESPN, or browse Zappos while on the job may feel like a luxury. But in time, many crave more meaningful—and more demanding—responsibilities.
posted by almostmanda (94 comments total) 54 users marked this as a favorite
 
Yet there are more-detailed surveys reporting that the average time spent on private activities at work is between 1.5 and three hours a day.

Finally, I am an overachiever at something!
posted by backseatpilot at 6:28 AM on November 4, 2014 [38 favorites]


I'm glad they ended that piece with an Adam's quote. That guy's a genius.
posted by cjorgensen at 6:33 AM on November 4, 2014 [8 favorites]


Hey, I'm so good at slacking that I
posted by triage_lazarus at 6:36 AM on November 4, 2014 [5 favorites]


Office workers pretend to work and people pretend to pay them.
posted by The Whelk at 6:39 AM on November 4, 2014 [13 favorites]


It's 9:40 am and I am reading this and posting about it... from work
posted by cubby at 6:41 AM on November 4, 2014 [1 favorite]


re: "the dominance of image over reality, of obfuscation over clarity, of politics over performance" -

I've had salary jobs and I've had jobs that paid me for tasks/deliverables accomplished. Guess which ones I was most efficient on?

When we're paid to sit around, we sit around.

I wonder if I could complete the work that I do in my 40-hour work-week in about 25 hours.

But if I were expected to work at my 25-hr/week productivity for 40 hrs/week, I'd probably fall apart.

We need to loaf - more than a contractually-mandated 15 minute break in the morning and one in the afternoon.

The internet makes it a bit easier and more measurable, but if it weren't the internet, it would be chatting at the water cooler, taking long walks, putting feet up, reading, or just daydreaming.
posted by entropone at 6:41 AM on November 4, 2014 [16 favorites]


At my old job people used to ask, "You work here?" I'd always answer, "Well, I get paid here."
posted by cjorgensen at 6:42 AM on November 4, 2014 [31 favorites]


I had a temp job once where there was about 2 hours of work to do in an 8 hour day. I eventually found out that the job was created because an auditor didn't like that the same person opened mail with checks in it, and processed the checks.

It was actually kind of horrible. The saving thing was that I discovered a lot of - and I will spell this out - Computer Based Training, that I could take while waiting for more mail. If not for that, I might have started posting on Salon Table Talk....
posted by thelonius at 6:43 AM on November 4, 2014 [9 favorites]


More seriously, the point made about not being able to get more tasking is spot on.

The best/worst time to learn about this stuff is before you even start a full-time job. I was hired as a co-op at a Large Multinational during college, and I simply could not get enough work to fill my day. My manager wanted me to go through test data for him, which meant I got a box full of paper on my desk every morning and slowly worked through it during the day. That happened until the day that I got sent to the lab to pick up the box, and the test engineer there asked me if I would prefer that he just email me the CSV files.

Two days later I had written up an Excel script to do my work for me. I showed my manager - "look how much faster and more accurate this is!" - and he told me he didn't trust the electronic data and he wanted me to continue doing my work by hand (this was in 2005, by the way). I said sure, no problem, and then let Excel do my work for me instead.

So, my day consisted of getting in, checking my email for the data, and then letting Excel churn on it for a few minutes. I had nothing else to do for the next six months. Great introduction to the working world.
posted by backseatpilot at 6:44 AM on November 4, 2014 [44 favorites]


See here for more MeFite anecdotes of not doing any work at work.
posted by Just this guy, y'know at 6:48 AM on November 4, 2014 [4 favorites]


See here for more MeFite anecdotes of not doing any work at work.

Ah! Thanks for finding that thread - I was looking for it but couldn't find it. This post is absolute gold.
posted by entropone at 6:51 AM on November 4, 2014 [8 favorites]


In other words, Office Space is an accidental documentary, and not just a satire of life as an American software developer? How many of us are Peter Gibbons? I know I feel that way; I just wish I felt like I could get away with working on my next novel instead of just dicking around on social media when things are slow at my day job.
posted by starbreaker at 7:00 AM on November 4, 2014


I did the same as backseatpilot....I pretty much completely automated my job, and then went about working on building a somewhat successful website, learned Photoshop and started editing photos I was taking for photo school, writing, all on the clock. No matter how many times I asked for more work, they couldn't fill my schedule with anything I couldn't immediately automate.

I'm in a totally different industry now, and waiting time is built into the schedule. In fact, my job description is basically "sit in the dark and wait for bad things to happen." It's weird, knowing that there is just built-in downtime has had the effect of making me much more focussed. I don't look for things with which to look busy in a panic....when I'm busy I'm busy, and when I'm not, I'm working on my photography in the back, thanks. I've built a semi-successful photography business while working a completely different job.

(That being said, when I do have a really busy week at work, I get caught and sometimes get nailed on the photo end, missing deadlines, etc. Then it sucks.)
posted by nevercalm at 7:01 AM on November 4, 2014 [3 favorites]


This is a pretty good MeFi quote, too:
In the world of Star Trek, technology has advanced to the point that nobody has to work, so people just do what they want all the time, and if that involves things that formerly would have been considered work, then that is just a coincidence. So if you want to be a poet, then that is your job and if you want to design holodeck apps, then you do that. It is all like whatevs. You just get your food from a replicator anyway. I think that the world is heading there now. I mean, you're at work right now right? Are you working? Me neither. Neither is anyone else. We are all just sitting around in front of computers pretending to work. We might as well stop the charade. Once we have robots to wait tables and build things, we can stop all this nonsense about "work" and I can be a professional laser tag player.
posted by resurrexit at 7:01 AM on November 4, 2014 [24 favorites]


I just wish I felt like I could get away with working on my next novel instead of just dicking around on social media when things are slow at my day job.

Why can't you? NaNoWriMo started a few days ago. I'm working on my novel right now, except I reached a breaking point and popped over here to see what the haps was.

I'm doing is via ssh to my home machine, which makes secrecy a non-issue.
posted by DU at 7:11 AM on November 4, 2014 [1 favorite]


"sit in the dark and wait for bad things to happen."

Nuclear missile technician?
posted by backseatpilot at 7:12 AM on November 4, 2014 [2 favorites]


Looking at MetaFilter from work is 'productive procrastination', a term I believe I once saw used by a very clever college professor.
posted by McMillan's Other Wife at 7:20 AM on November 4, 2014 [1 favorite]


cjorgensen, I take it you are at work since you missed the second page. 😉
posted by mistersquid at 7:20 AM on November 4, 2014 [3 favorites]


The problem that they don't mention in here is that I suspect many people are terrified if they say "I don't have enough to do" then their boss/company will get rid of them. Why in the world would I risk getting fired or laid off when jobs are so hard to find?
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 7:22 AM on November 4, 2014 [31 favorites]


I'm a reference librarian and I take that to mean that I should strive to be very knowledgeable so as best to help the people who come to me for help. I work at a college I teach about 40 information literacy classes a year, and I answer hundreds of reference questions. I have lots of down time which I spend at the reference desk reading news online, reading magazines and journals online, hanging out on metafilter and hanging out on facebook. In my annual reports I even mention that I answer random reference questions on metafilter. a lot of the faculty members I work with are on Facebook, so it's an easy way for me to share stuff with them (which is part of my job) and other friends.

I do wish my work week was shorter. Two-day weekends never seem long enough. If the standard American work week were reduced to 30 hours it might open up jobs for more people.
posted by mareli at 7:28 AM on November 4, 2014 [19 favorites]


I prefer to call it "sprint capacity."
posted by ctmf at 7:41 AM on November 4, 2014 [7 favorites]


I'd tell some stories along these lines but...maybe at 5pm.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 7:45 AM on November 4, 2014 [4 favorites]


My current job (teaching) is not like this at all. You work nearly every second you're at work, and you also bring work home. Personally I like it more than when I worked as an office manager and had about two and a half days of downtime a week.
posted by subdee at 7:47 AM on November 4, 2014 [2 favorites]


Computer Based Training

Oh hells yeah. And there's often no restriction on what courses you can take. Like, you'd think you'd need some kind of legitimate reason, but no. My latest few certifications are DoD Anti-terrorism Program Manager, Naval Special Warfare Communications, and FEMA Radiological Emergency Management.
posted by ctmf at 7:47 AM on November 4, 2014 [21 favorites]


What's the word for the fact that people who have to work their asses off just to survive won't be stopping by to comment in this thread?
posted by benito.strauss at 8:00 AM on November 4, 2014 [35 favorites]



I'm just over three hours into my work day and I've done everything that needs to be done and everything that could be done. I've also helped out on two tasks that aren't in my job description. At first when this happened I'd feel so guilty, like I was doing something horribly wrong. I soon got over it. For one I get paid half the amount that is average for this type of work. It's a job that at times has a lot of 'have to wait for other things to happen downtime'. I've also discovered that relative to most that work here I'm uber efficient at getting what I need to do done.

I 'could' ask for more work and I 'could' take on some of my colleagues work but in a way doing that feels more like a penalty for getting my work done quicker then everyone else. If this was a job where I had expectations to advance or get paid better I'd probably do that. I don't so I spend a lot of time, mastering the art of not-working at work. Metafilter is a big part in my artist toolbox.

Yay Metafilter
posted by Jalliah at 8:08 AM on November 4, 2014 [5 favorites]


I think that the world is heading there now. I mean, you're at work right now right? Are you working? Me neither. Neither is anyone else. We are all just sitting around in front of computers pretending to work. We might as well stop the charade. Once we have robots to wait tables and build things, we can stop all this nonsense about "work" and I can be a professional laser tag player.

Well, the world may be heading there for some of us. I'm fairly certain that the dudes who vacuum the office at the end of the day aren't getting paid for fake work. And if they get replaced by a giant Roomba, the chances of them leveraging that into a way onto the Professional Laser Tag circuit is pretty slim.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:08 AM on November 4, 2014 [8 favorites]


So as I sit here in my very highly paid consultant job (which basically consist in listening to people and nodding severely with a bit of IT thrown in) this news does not really is a novelty.

Is just that capitalism needs working people in order to sell them the products. As efficiency gets better and better we either leave them home (bad move, they cant buy things anymore) or we invent jobs or simply get 4 people to do one person work.

Now if we just could say to this people: would you get 2 grands *that you need to spend every month* to stay home for life ? Same effect with the benefits the ones that want to work get decent coworkers.
posted by elcapitano at 8:11 AM on November 4, 2014 [6 favorites]


What's the word for the fact that people who have to work their asses off just to survive won't be stopping by to comment in this thread?

Capitalism?
posted by davros42 at 8:13 AM on November 4, 2014 [17 favorites]


> In fact, my job description is basically "sit in the dark and wait for bad things to happen."
Shotwell and I watch the console. Shotwell and I live under the ground and watch the console. If certain events take place upon the console, we are to insert our keys in the appropriate locks and turn our keys. Shotwell has a key and I have a key. If we turn our keys simultaneously the bird flies, certain switches are activated and the bird flies. But the bird never flies. In one hundred thirty-three days the bird has not flown.
posted by Westringia F. at 8:18 AM on November 4, 2014 [9 favorites]


Some anecdata from the other side: I've been in a position where we had an intern/junior who I had to manage. Intern responded to most requests with "I've never done that before, how do I do that?" and kept responding to all guidance in a very similar manner. We all wanted to be supportive but eventually found ourselves basically doing the work for intern, and thus no one wanted to manage intern anymore, who ended up being tossed from one person to the other, and having less and less to do.

I'm sure intern went back to school saying "wowzers the real world mostly involves looking busy on facebook!"
posted by tempythethird at 8:23 AM on November 4, 2014 [1 favorite]


“If I had to describe my 16 years of corporate work with one phrase, it would be ‘pretending to add value.’ … The key to career advancement is appearing valuable despite all hard evidence to the contrary. …

I can't argue with that, for the situation I'm in at least. As a matter of fact, most of the time, I feel like I'm actively improving the world by doing nada, zilch, zippo for my employer. The fact that I'm using that time in better things makes it all the sweeter.
posted by RolandOfEld at 8:24 AM on November 4, 2014 [1 favorite]


Intern responded to most requests with "I've never done that before, how do I do that?"

The problem with your story is that this is what interns are supposed to do. Not the kid's fault none of the managers felt like managing.

On the other hand, since I've never had a manager who felt like managing, I guess it *is* good training for the real world.
posted by like_a_friend at 8:26 AM on November 4, 2014 [9 favorites]


What's the word for the fact that people who have to work their asses off just to survive won't be stopping by to comment in this thread?

AMERCIA
posted by RogerB at 8:33 AM on November 4, 2014 [8 favorites]


"In a society where presentation is everything, it’s no longer about what you do, it’s about how you look like you’re doing it."

A co-worker and I have the same job. She's very slow and inefficient, so she's busy all day, while I get my day's work done in an hour or two and read or web surf the rest of the time. Naturally, I'm frowned upon as the office slacker who goofs off all day, while my co-worker gets lauded for her tireless work ethic.
posted by El Sabor Asiatico at 8:41 AM on November 4, 2014 [55 favorites]


Just to elaborate on my post more, what's the good outcome if I tell my boss I need more work? I get more work. The best possible outcome is I get more work to do and the worst possible outcome is I get fired. There's no incentive for me to do this.

I say this as I'm taking a break from writing a report that my boss won't read but he will pass on to the client who won't read it, but I have to write it or we'll look like we're not working. Capitalism is a cargo cult.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 8:41 AM on November 4, 2014 [32 favorites]


The problem with your story is that this is what interns are supposed to do.

Obviously interns are entitled to a lot of guidance. But this does not extend to the point where people feel the urge to respond with "let me google that for you." A certain excessive ignorance and passivity can be used (perhaps unknowingly) to create a situation where assigning anything to you becomes such a PITA that people start to avoid doing it.
posted by tempythethird at 8:48 AM on November 4, 2014 [7 favorites]


Just to elaborate on my post more, what's the good outcome if I tell my boss I need more work? I get more work. The best possible outcome is I get more work to do and the worst possible outcome is I get fired. There's no incentive for me to do this.

I guess it depends on the job. I've been at places where taking initiative and showing dedication to your job was noticed and rewarded. The company would either promote you, or create a new position for you based on your ideas about what you could be contributing.

On the other hand, at my current job the boss only wants to see a smoothly-running operation, and has zero interest in any ideas his employees might have or any initiative they might show.

I learned very quickly here to not bother taking on any additional work, because my employer doesn't notice or care if I do, and all I'm doing is lightening my co-workers' burden at the expense of my own.
posted by El Sabor Asiatico at 8:57 AM on November 4, 2014 [5 favorites]


Hey, laugh all you want, but no less than an Ivy League institution recognizes that goofing off is the way of the future.
posted by tonycpsu at 8:58 AM on November 4, 2014


(And yeah, back in my day, you didn't need a professor to teach you how to goof off.)
posted by tonycpsu at 8:59 AM on November 4, 2014


Skimmed. Back to bridgebase.
posted by No Robots at 8:59 AM on November 4, 2014 [3 favorites]


Tagpro
posted by RolandOfEld at 9:21 AM on November 4, 2014 [1 favorite]


When I was working full time, it was nearly exclusively at very small companies. I'm certainly guilty of my share of "productive procrastination," make no mistake. But working at those small places was pretty different from the stories of total disengagement that I see here.

I have lately begun to suspect that the limiting factor in human endeavor is our inability to form, operate, and maintain very large organizations efficiently. Its an issue that shows up in disaffected office workers, space shuttle crashes, nuclear accidents, political nonsense, and the way no network-connected device ever quite seems to work exactly the way its supposed to.

Big organizations that persist are the ones that put their own survival ahead of their ostensible purpose. If the big organization is a business, its ostensible purpose is to manage capital productively, but in practice it's more important to hold the line, to fend off change. If that means you've got nothing to do six hours out of eight, so be it.
posted by Western Infidels at 9:25 AM on November 4, 2014 [16 favorites]


I used to work at a small corporate communications firm that went down with Tower 1 at the World Trade Center. After the month it took for us to get operating again, none of our clients had any substantial jobs for us and the company was basically surviving off of SBA loans. The owners didn't want to lay off anyone since we were all recently traumatized. So the dozen of us just sat there, day in and day out, with pretty much nothing to do.

I've since learned that many of us invest our identities in our work and career, and if there is no perceived value derived from the time spent at work, that turns into a feeling of worthlessness.

Our company's owners didn't really care what we did all day, as long as we were on hand if/when work came in. But it rarely did, which left plenty of time for emailing friends, playing computer games or just staring blankly at the screen. Not only was the boredom excruciating, but it was demoralizing to leave everyday with the feeling of having accomplished nothing. I lasted for maybe another year at that job and when I turned in my notice, my manager told me I was about to get laid off anyway so I just saved him from paying for unemployment insurance. Since then I've fully understood the importance of having enough to do at work, not only for the benefit of the company, but also for my own sense of worth.
posted by slogger at 9:44 AM on November 4, 2014 [8 favorites]


Large organizations are part of the problem, but I think most of the time-wasting behavior is symptomatic of friction and general perversity in the labor market. Screwing around on the clock is basically the only way workers have of capturing some of the "efficiency dividend" that has manifested itself over the past few decades.

A lot of people might prefer to take a 25% pay cut and only work 30 hours a week; maybe three ten hour days followed by a four-day weekend. I'd probably take that if it was on offer. But it's not.

The economics of employment dictate that you are best having the minimum number of employees possible, and then squeeze the most work out of them that you can. This is because there are fixed costs associated with each person on the payroll. (If they're salaried, then it's really rented-mule time.)

Separating healthcare from employment would probably break down one of the barriers, but I don't think that's necessarily sufficient; the proliferation of salaried/exempt jobs is really the linchpin that you have to break if you want more flexible working arrangements.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:45 AM on November 4, 2014 [12 favorites]


I always wonder how work is measured.

If I am reading reddit am I working? What if it's /r/sysadmin or /r/apple (I only have two Mac users, but someone has to know how to support them).

If I am reading a tech blog am I working?

If I set up work email for someone on a personal device am I working?

If I answer a question about her home machine am I working? (A lot of my users are BYOD users).

If I am on-the-clock and available when things go wrong am I working?

If I take a text in bed and I reply am I working?

If I play Clash of Clans while waiting for SAS to install am I working?

Paying me for my work is dumb. Paying me because things stay running and the people around me are able to be productive isn't. I live by the adage "A bored system analyst is a good system analyst." Seriously, if you are someplace where your IT staff is running ragged it's because someone isn't doing things correctly.
posted by cjorgensen at 9:51 AM on November 4, 2014 [10 favorites]


A co-worker and I have the same job. She's very slow and inefficient, so she's busy all day, while I get my day's work done in an hour or two and read or web surf the rest of the time. Naturally, I'm frowned upon as the office slacker who goofs off all day, while my co-worker gets lauded for her tireless work ethic.

I have a new job now that's been keeping me pretty busy (until I manage to get things more automated), but every single other job I've had I've always had plenty of downtime. But when I would look around, everyone around me was so BUSY BUSY BUSY. So I would take an honest look at my work to see if there was anything more I could be doing, which there usually wasn't. So I have to conclude that I'm either more efficient than most people or I'm cutting corners in a major way and not recognizing it. Nothing has come back to bite me in the ass though, so I don't think I'm cutting corners, but honestly, I'm still not sure. I can't believe that most people are super inefficient and I'm not, but who knows. Still trying to figure it out.
posted by triggerfinger at 9:53 AM on November 4, 2014 [5 favorites]


> Yet there are more-detailed surveys reporting that the average time spent on private activities at work is between 1.5 and three hours a day.

A coworker at my first white collar job and I did some rough calculations and figured that we performed about seven or eight hours of actual work per week. One day I fell asleep in my chair for almost two hours and nobody, not even the girl sitting five feet behind me, even noticed.
posted by The Card Cheat at 9:54 AM on November 4, 2014 [2 favorites]


i feel way less bad now. i remember being so completely stressed at a job that i would not have had time to comment here and making half as much money.

now i make a ton of money and markedly less stress. and i get great reviews on what i do.

maybe i should give nanowrimo a shot. i keep meaning to do that. for like years now.
posted by sio42 at 9:57 AM on November 4, 2014 [1 favorite]


This is why we need a version of Metafilter that looks like a spreadsheet or something.
posted by Clustercuss at 10:04 AM on November 4, 2014 [15 favorites]


We've got a professional white background!
posted by phatkitten at 10:06 AM on November 4, 2014 [1 favorite]


Just to elaborate on my post more, what's the good outcome if I tell my boss I need more work? I get more work. The best possible outcome is I get more work to do and the worst possible outcome is I get fired. There's no incentive for me to do this.

More money at some point? Obviously this doesn't work for all careers (or for people who have jobs but not really careers) but the kind of work that makes sense asking for is the kind of work that looks good on a CV, right? Even if you don't want more money and/or responsibility you could still get more leverage in moving companies.

I'd happily take a 20% pay cut to work four day weeks but unfortunately the way our current system is set up doesn't allow that kind of thing. Since I have to be here five days a week anyway, I might as well get as much out of it as I can.
posted by atrazine at 10:10 AM on November 4, 2014


This is why we need a version of Metafilter that looks like a spreadsheet or something.

Something like this but for MeFi? I imagine it wouldn't be too hard for someone to whip up...
posted by drumcorpse at 10:32 AM on November 4, 2014 [1 favorite]


I worked for RadioShack for the last two years. Obviously, my downtime was tremendous. Everyone who's worked Retail knows that a Manager's Actual Real Job is "prevent your employees from just dicking around until a customer comes in" but since this was RadioShack that was impossible. So I abused the shit out of whatever websites weren't blocked, set up a Roku Display strictly so I could watch TV At Work, and just generally filled the hours in.

By the time I left there after a year and a half I was miserable. When you maybe spend an hour a day surfing tech blogs and shit, sure that's fine. But when you get maybe a customer an hour, you do wind up going "What the fuck am I doing here?"

Now I've got a job that honestly, I find myself needing more time. I kinda wish I could just come in on Saturday for two hours because letting it go to waste is a big bummer. But I'm immensely happier about what I do for a living.

I do however, find myself wondering how I'm supposed to catch up with my podcasts.
posted by WeX Majors at 10:34 AM on November 4, 2014 [3 favorites]


One of the other aspects of sysadminng is it's generally stressful. You see people and PC are their worst. If I had to put in a full 40 at my actual job without downtime between tasks I think I would get a different job.
posted by cjorgensen at 10:35 AM on November 4, 2014 [1 favorite]


Five hours into a twelve hour shift. 15 minutes of work done so far. Probably that much again to do before I leave. If there were only a way to get it all done in one hit and then go home - but essentially I'm paid to sit here and wait for the 5% of the time when I'm needed. Not fulfilling, no advantage to asking for more work, I don't want promotion - but any change means a pay cut that would hurt. It's far from a difficult life - but I really need to find something fulfilling/useful to fill this time.
posted by Hobo at 10:41 AM on November 4, 2014



Sooo, about half an hour after I posted about working on my art my boss came in to ask if I would be willing to take on some different work, get another day of hours and a little more money. She said my name came up with management as someone capable of figuring out this work and doing it well. They're switching some job descriptions around in the quality department and need someone to take on a bit of the quality managers job. Never done that type of work before but what the heck seems straight forward enough.

Just found it quite funny that this happened right after writing about finding ways to kill time at work and here I am recognized as someone who is capable and does great work. I'm happy but part of me feels really guilty.
posted by Jalliah at 10:41 AM on November 4, 2014 [9 favorites]


I've trained my people well enough where it pretty much runs in automatic other than the routine HR-type stuff or the infrequent difference of opinion to be solved.

I actually use a lot of the unoccupied time to offer to do some of my boss's job. Tons of non-monetary benefits. Learning experience for me, I get to network with people I otherwise wouldn't, I get to influence things I otherwise wouldn't, I become the first person they think of for a stand-in when necessary, and have a reputation advantage when the job comes open. Plus it makes me better at my job to have a bit of a wider perspective about where I fit in.

Other times I think about how what we have differs from what I'd ideally like to have, and how to get the two to match. I think that's something my employer would willingly pay for.

There's still some room for mefi and some good old-fashioned dicking around, though.
posted by ctmf at 10:49 AM on November 4, 2014


dude, i totally hear you.
posted by sio42 at 10:50 AM on November 4, 2014


I've spent most of my working life running my crappy little consulting business, and the lesson there is "don't be cheap, people will ruthlessly exploit you" -- plus you get the reputation not as the "awesome guy who does things for a decent price" but as "the cheap guy who you can walk all over." Offering things for free or reduced waits rarely leads to future work--when people get a real budget they then go out and hire a "real" company.

When I have worked in real companies, it often felt the same. You might be asked to do the work of Specialist A but when time comes to hire an actual person to fill Specialist A's role, companies tend to go find a "genuine" Specialist A. Or, if you're hired, you won't be paid market for the position.

#notallcompanies, sure.
posted by maxwelton at 11:00 AM on November 4, 2014 [1 favorite]


Wasting time isn't always wasting time. There are some jobs for which a part of the job is just to be available.

My brother-in-law is an EMT and that is an explicit part of his job. When he is "on call" he is getting paid to do whatever he wants (though there are some restrictions) as long as he is available if a call comes in.

Most jobs aren't so explicit about it but you basically do the same thing. When I worked in retail banking, we had plenty of tasks that we could turn to when we weren't busy but really the task was to make sure that we could drop what we were doing at the drop of a hat and help any customers that came in. There is no way to know with any certainty how often a customer is going to walk through the door so if there aren't any coming in you're getting paid just to be there in case they did.

If your job is like that (and it doesn't have to be customer facing to count) you absolutely shouldn't feel bad about doing personal stuff at work. Just think of yourself as being on call.

Even the job I have now gives me less than 40 hours/week of work to get done on purpose. It's so that I have the capacity to do more should it become necessary. But if there are some tasks that I get efficient enough at that I have way too much excess capacity I can use that as an opportunity to add some tasks that I might like to do a little more (or hate a little less) or just some stuff that might set me up for a promotion down the road.

I've even heard that when Toyota's manufacturing plants consistently running at 80% or more of their capacity, they start looking at building another one or expanding what they have just so that they have the excess capacity available. So I guess that most of the time Toyota's plants spend at least 20% of their day wasting time/being there in case the company needs you.
posted by VTX at 11:07 AM on November 4, 2014 [2 favorites]




What's the word for the fact that people who have to work their asses off just to survive won't be stopping by to comment in this thread?

Seriously. I'm here now for my couple hours between part-time jobs one of which has a fixed schedule with 12 hours per week and the other giving me random numbers of hours per week between 0 and 25. All together, I've barely enough to survive. This having one single job sitting at a desk and having lots of downtime thing sounds like some miraculous fantasyland to me. I want to go to there.
posted by The Great Big Mulp at 11:16 AM on November 4, 2014 [6 favorites]


This thread needs some King Missile. I was reminded of the last 5 lines of the song by Cubby's comment.
Take stuff from work.
It's the best way to feel better about your job.
Never buy pens or pencils or paper.
Take 'em from work.
Rubber bands, paper clips, memo pads, folders-take 'em from work.
It's the best way to feel better about your low pay and appalling working conditions.
Take an ashtray-they got plenty.
Take coat hangers.
Take a, take a trash can.
Why buy a file cabinet?
Why buy a phone?
Why buy a personal computer or word processor?
Take 'em from work.
I took a whole desk from the last place I worked.
They never noticed and it looks great in my apartment.
Take an electric pencil sharpener.
Take a case of white-out; you might need it one day.
Take some from work
It's your duty as an oppressed worker to steal from your exploiters.
It's gonna be an outstanding day.
Take stuff from work.
And goof off on the company time.
I wrote this at work.
They're paying me to write about stuff I steal from them.
Life is good.
The ashtray line certainly dates this song to my youth, when emptying the ashtrays in the store was one of the duties of my first retail job.
posted by phearlez at 11:25 AM on November 4, 2014 [2 favorites]


I'm sorry; I'm sure not having enough work at work comes with its own set of difficulties and frustrations. I think I'm just having a particularly bitter day and probably should've just avoided the article entirely.
posted by The Great Big Mulp at 11:35 AM on November 4, 2014


Futurists used to talk about how eventually everybody would be down to something like 3-hour workdays. It's arrived, but like the much-promised flying cars, it doesn't work or look anything like we had hoped and isn't available for everyone.
posted by ckape at 11:51 AM on November 4, 2014 [7 favorites]


thelonius: "a lot of - and I will spell this out - Computer Based Training"

hah, nice.
posted by boo_radley at 11:53 AM on November 4, 2014 [2 favorites]


"a lot of - and I will spell this out - Computer Based Training"

Without spelling it out a lot of us would have thought you were referring to cognitive behavioral therapy. Right folks?
posted by el io at 12:42 PM on November 4, 2014 [3 favorites]


Well under some circumstances I could see it being therapeutic, sure. Consenting adults and all.
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:55 PM on November 4, 2014


I just wish I felt like I could get away with working on my next novel instead of just dicking around on social media when things are slow at my day job.

You probably can. In fact, that may be better-looking to the powers that be - it's easier to explain your typing in a word document as "oh, that must be for work" than it is to come up with a plausible explanation for "why is Starbreaker on Facebook on company time?" For ten years I wrote study guides for a theater company in Pennsylvania - and those guides were almost entirely written at the desk of my day job. And people flat-out saw me doing it and didn't notice, because I was working in a word document rather than shopping for shoes or whatever.

Although, even here, having a great amount of downtime still feels dispiriting - "you know, if you wanted to pay me to do nothing, I could be doing it at home where I'm more comfortable." I think that's one thing I like so much about my current position - there's less pay, but there's more to do and it's more awesome (I actually wrote a tourist guide for a bunch of dignitaries visiting this week, and this afternoon I played tour guide!).
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:19 PM on November 4, 2014 [1 favorite]


The linked article contains a SPOILER for DFW's The Pale King... dammit.
posted by popaopee at 1:31 PM on November 4, 2014


What, no firstworldproblems tag?

> All together, I've barely enough to survive. This having one single job sitting at a desk and having lots of downtime thing sounds like some miraculous fantasyland to me.
> I'm sorry; I'm sure not having enough work at work comes with its own set of difficulties and frustrations. I think I'm just having a particularly bitter day and probably should've just avoided the article entirely.

No, MeFi needs more of your perspective.
posted by Monochrome at 1:55 PM on November 4, 2014 [1 favorite]


This is why we need a version of Metafilter that looks like a spreadsheet or something.

Not to sound like a broken record or anything, but I recommend Lynx. Terminal windows look like productivity dark magic and also are like a do-not-disturb sign. Use your home machine via SSH.

More seriously, my main wonder is why this is so shocking. If I was to be honest, the vast majority of my working life has consisted of being paid to do things that on the whole were destructive. My wages have been paid from companies that extract more value than they add and destroy more than they create.

What motivation do I have to work hard when that work isn't noticed or rewarded, and in all honesty is actually contributing net harm to the world as a whole? The shocking thing is that I still work. I ignore the bigger picture and make a game of finding solutions to small problems. I'm sure a good proportion of educated, white collar workers in the developed world are in the same boat. Canada certainly is a poster-boy for this, with our economy dependent on tar sands, gold mining, finance, and a massive housing bubble. We are an engine of death with the richest middle class in the world. What did we do to earn this distinction? Did we truly create this wealth, or just extract it? Would humanity be better off if I didn't exist?

I don't really want to dwell on this question too much, so I will either browse MeFi, or get back to work setting up the guest WiFi VLAN on our new APs so our clients can more easily distract themselves in meetings.
posted by [expletive deleted] at 2:40 PM on November 4, 2014 [8 favorites]


Why it's almost like alienation of labor is a real thing.....
posted by The Whelk at 2:42 PM on November 4, 2014 [6 favorites]


Actually yeah, I would have thought he meant CBT, like he was doing MoodGym all day and journaling a la Feeling Good.

I mean, not that I've ever done either of those things at work. So I wouldn't know. Just a guess...
posted by sio42 at 3:16 PM on November 4, 2014


And yes it is a miraculous fantasyland. It took me over a year to really get used to having this bizarre work reality.

I have worked my ass off for years and am finally comfortable to some degree. It was really hard to stop waiting for the other shoe to drop. I thought Office Space was a fantasy but it's now I explain my job to people who don't know what a BA does.

I feel lucky to have gotten here even though "here" is not quite what I thought it would be in terms of day to day. It's pretty much like high school but with no homework. It's weird.
posted by sio42 at 3:21 PM on November 4, 2014 [1 favorite]


Yeah, this is insane to me. I work in restaurants. If you are there you are ON. There is always something to do, and you're on your feet non-stop. If you have ever worked at a restaurant you know you probably are going to work a shift with no breaks because you literally don't have time to do so.

This shit is ultimate first world problems.
posted by Ferreous at 6:12 PM on November 4, 2014


I've worked as a grill man, short order cook, dish washer, warehouse labor, baker, journalist, medical consultant, physician.

The one thing I know for sure is the more I make, the less work I have to show for it.

Sometimes my wife asks me what I did today and it almost triggers an identity crisis.
posted by hobo gitano de queretaro at 7:16 PM on November 4, 2014 [3 favorites]


Sometimes I wish that I'd realized earlier in my career (say, before spending 5 years in grad school) that I don't have an ambitious bone in my body when it comes to work. I readily admit that I work to have money for other things; the idea of work itself being a main source of fulfillment in my life is a very foreign concept to me. Sure, I've had jobs that made me feel that I was doing good for the world and was challenged by the level of hard work, but they left me little mental energy to do things that made me happy outside of work. Perhaps it was a bit of cognitive dissonance at work (no pun intended)--I wouldn't try so hard at something that I didn't enjoy, right? For now I am happy to be in a place where I do my job (which, in the whole scheme of things, is not awful), have the mental resources to find happiness outside of work, earn enough to be comfortable, and not let my career have the power to dictate how I feel about my life at any given moment.

I still fantasize about this though.
posted by Fuego at 7:37 PM on November 4, 2014 [4 favorites]


"Take Stuff From Work" is an outstanding song. That and "I Am A Sensitive Artist" are the two King Missile songs that I wish people knew more.

There's some magic amount of downtime during a job that will make it bearable. I've had jobs with so little to do that I took on extra projects to keep from going crazy. I've also had jobs where I was working so many extra hours that I basically became a machine.

As more and more is automated, I would like to hope that our biggest struggle will be finding meaningful things to do with ourselves. I fear that it will be scrambling for ever-smaller pieces of the pie.
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 8:07 PM on November 4, 2014


Yeah, I don't get this at all. It's like dispatches from a spaceship. I'm an hourly worker in a blue-collar trade. When I clock in? I work until I clock out. I take my minimum legal breaks but that's it. We work to order. If there isn't work to do, I don't waste my bosses' money by clocking in and doing nothing -- that feels like a complete asshole thing to do. I make work for myself. I pre-assemble what I can pre-assemble, I get shit together for potential future orders, I make stock items, whatever. If there isn't work in the manufacturing side I go find some in admin and work my hours until I clock out. If there's nothing in admin I clock out and go home. I don't ever clock empty hours. It's very, very much a workplace culture thing. If you've finished your work you find more or you go home. If there isn't work to be found you don't come in.

This thing people describe where you go in and then you don't work sounds completely ludicrous to me, but it's something I've encountered when we hire new staff. Sorry, if you want to sit around goofing off with solitaire while work sits there and sits there not getting done, those hours are not paid hours. You want more paid hours? Do your work. It's incredible how much attitude I see from new hires and trainees about this. I mean, I don't actually care if you were 'going to do it'. I don't care, the bosses don't care. Either you do it or you don't do it. If you don't do it, you don't get paid for not doing it.

My workplace is super, super old-school about this stuff, though.
posted by E. Whitehall at 8:08 PM on November 4, 2014 [2 favorites]


No matter where you live, almost everyone's a Brazilian in the white-collar business world.
posted by pracowity at 12:29 AM on November 5, 2014 [2 favorites]


Sooo, about half an hour after I posted about working on my art my boss came in to ask if I would be willing to take on some different work

They're monitoring you.
posted by pracowity at 12:29 AM on November 5, 2014


In the economy where employers threaten white collar employees with outsourcing or automation, the employee who secretly outsources or automates their own job is king.
posted by mccarty.tim at 4:06 AM on November 5, 2014 [5 favorites]


They're monitoring me, too, which is why I'm reading and posting via my tablet. I need something to multitask doing to make sure I work slowly enough. That way when they play back my 8 hours of work at 10 speed to check up on me they see even progress over the whole time. If I work at full efficiency I get in trouble for having better numbers than my coworkers. You see either I should have taught them to be as efficient as I am so we'd all be identical cogs by osmosis or I am somehow cheating to get those numbers and must stop at once. It's toxic as hell because I can't even accomplish something productive during dawdle time because it needs to be in tiny constant bits.
posted by Karmakaze at 8:32 AM on November 5, 2014 [2 favorites]


My workplace is super, super old-school about this stuff, though.

I don't think it represents old school so much as it represents effective management and pay and allocation of resources. A tremendous amount of the idle time at work happens because it's very easy to track someone's arrival and departure times. Knowing what they did during that time isn't possible without perfect surveillance and for most things perfect surveillance requires another human's full-time attention. If you could automate the monitoring you could probably monitor the job.

So what does that leave you? You have to understand their job and duties well enough to have an understanding of what they're spending time on and producing. Maybe you have a job with well defined deliverables so you can look and see that yes, Person X cleared all the memos and proofread everything we handed her so we know she's delivering on her worth. In a perfect and trusting world without jealousy that might mean you say hey, it's 2pm on Friday and we know we're clear till Monday - go home, lady!

But we're not perfect. Person X's manager has to explain to her bosses that she herself is getting the job done, and lacking good insight into that they also rely on lazy metrics. Why is Y's department half empty by midday Friday? She must not be monitoring her people. Or you have jealousy, where X's coworkers get pissed she's gone and they're still working. Maybe it's because they suck and take three times longer than X does so they can't leave early. But they WANT to leave early and don't realize they suck. So they resent it and think X should be getting more work and MAYBE then everyone can leave 15 minutes early. So now Y has trouble for herself because her boss, Z, is getting these complaints.

Or X could find some sort of innocuous browser-based game and just look busy for a few hours here and there. Y probably knows that X could do things faster but everyone seems to be keeping up with the workload and trying to fill the department with X-quality workers doesn't seem possible. Z sees that Y's department is getting the job done and their budget isn't out of whack with everybody else, internally or externally.

It doesn't have to be that way but it sure seems like it's harder for it not to be that way the larger an organization gets. Either because you get the slowpokes or the cheaters or because someone up top can't or shouldn't trust someone below them in the management chain.

It doesn't happen (as much) in a bar or restaurant because it's way easier to see when someone is fucking off and the tasks are much better defined. The tables are cleared or they're not. Food's sitting under the lights or it's getting to the table. Customers are far more motivated to complain when performance suffers because they don't have the expectation of having to deal with that shitty server/cook/host/bartender every day for the next year... unlike the office workers who will just work around the underperforming person.

But even if the people in this thread haven't seen it happen I sure have - I've worked in places where someone wiped down the same section of counter a few thousand times more than it needed, chatted up the customer who was hotter/more interesting rather than the one who needed a drink. If you work in a service job where nobody is fucking off here or there then I hope you're being paid commensurate with the money that place is bringing in.

Personally I'd rather be back behind the bar. It was a way more gratifying job than coding even if it was a thousand times more exhausting. Which was part of what was gratifying about it. Bleach and stale beer still smells like home to me. And I think the fact that the fucking off is less gratifying and hideable helps. Why stare into space when you could actually do something, even if what you're doing is limiting how stressful it'll be later by doing some prep work? The zombies still show up and stare at the thousand-mile-distant point, but they're spotted more quickly in service, I think.
posted by phearlez at 9:07 AM on November 5, 2014 [2 favorites]


My work history has been checkered with these jobs, where I am just not given enough work to do. In my case there was often a large disparity between the boss' knowledge of what the work entailed and what the work actually was. Super technical sounding stuff, with lots of acronyms, can easily bamboozle a manager into thinking it is hard and will take a lot longer than it actually does.

For example: I had a boss who would sit at her desk with a calculator, crunching numbers by hand and entering the answers into the cells in excel. Her estimates of how long it should take to do things with the computer machines were... generous.
posted by selenized at 9:12 AM on November 5, 2014 [3 favorites]


The problem that they don't mention in here is that I suspect many people are terrified if they say "I don't have enough to do" then their boss/company will get rid of them. Why in the world would I risk getting fired or laid off when jobs are so hard to find?
Just to elaborate on my post more, what's the good outcome if I tell my boss I need more work? I get more work. The best possible outcome is I get more work to do and the worst possible outcome is I get fired. There's no incentive for me to do this.


If you point out that you don't have enough to do, most of the time your employer really doesn't have anything else for you to do, and then they note, "Hey, we could totally lay you off for cheaper." Or send you home so you only get a three hour paycheck and you needed all eight hours for rent. It's a lose-lose, all right.

Your best options are to either (a) work sloooooooooow, or (b) make up something that makes you look busy, like writing your NaNo novel.

Meanwhile, at my work every time we have to Serve The Public, there can be intermittent people coming in. We have been hounded and yelled at to be working every single second when people are not in so that we look busy--however, the stuff we do on a regular basis is NOT something that can or should be done when the possibility of being interrupted and having to drop everything and scrap your work to wait on someone is high. This is why people were, guess what, reading the Internet because that could easily be dropped. But nooooo. Either we work constantly or "you can just read our webpage." Over and over again, multiple times a week until you retire, seriously? I wouldn't mind having some project to work on that didn't involve our main computer system (i.e. so we wouldn't have to drop everything when we're interrupted), but nooooo. I think they'd prefer I just quietly drool into a corner.
posted by jenfullmoon at 10:13 AM on November 5, 2014


The problem that they don't mention in here is that I suspect many people are terrified if they say "I don't have enough to do" then their boss/company will get rid of them. Why in the world would I risk getting fired or laid off when jobs are so hard to find?

If you can do your job well and still have time left in the day, just do something else in addition to your job. Get permission to organize the company something or other -- something free or inexpensive but that has your company visibly helping your local community (good PR) or that improves the health and happiness of the people at work -- and be the quite visible head of the team.

The bosses will like you for working so hard at your job and all the extra stuff you do to make the company a better place to work. When it's time to let someone go, they won't want to lose good old you, the spirited person who somehow works a full day and still manages to organize and run all those great things for the company.
posted by pracowity at 12:57 AM on November 6, 2014


Whoops, didn't check in here soon enough....I wish I was working in a missile silo. Actually, no I don't, because when I'm "sitting in the dark waiting for bad things to happen" the dark is because it's backstage and onstage my awesome show is going on, so fuck missile silos! I'm a stagehand/tech, and that's one of the many little catchphrases we use to describe what we do. It also explains the built-in downtime. They have to load the audience in sometime, and generally I'm either hanging out in the control room cracking wise or working on pictures.

Also, back when I was on the corporate side and writing a lot while killing time, I used to construct an elaborate spreadsheet, pick one cell somewhere middle-y, and write to my heart's content in it. If I heard anyone coming, I would simply hit "enter," which would immediately hide all that writing and send me to the next cell of innocuous numbers. The character limit in a cell in Excel is like 25,000 or something crazy. If you start with the default sized cell, it will only show the first word or number. Everything else is hidden.
posted by nevercalm at 7:11 PM on November 7, 2014 [1 favorite]


Ha! I know you can get plenty of personal projects done during shows as a props person at the ballet. As long as you do it fairly quietly and don't miss any cues.
posted by ctmf at 8:18 PM on November 7, 2014


Thanks for posting this article.

It's obviously better to have a do-nothing job than no job at all, but I can attest that it really is demoralizing to feel like you do nothing all day. Asking for more work doesn't necessarily help. (Just go watch YouTube videos or something, my boss said one time. Despite the fact that this is totally against company policy, of course.)

I do plenty of non-job things from my desk--I have a side business which my supervisors basically understand that I work on, to say nothing of most of my graduate coursework--but they are not really related to any sense of long-term advancement in my job, which is pretty dead-end. I have tried to apply for jobs where I'd be busier with no success. I feel like the longer I'm at this job, the less likely another is to employ me since I have years of irrelevant experience at this point. I can pretty much feel myself getting stupider and my life becoming more meaningless as the clock ticks by.
posted by Argyle Road at 7:23 PM on November 8, 2014


The bosses will like you for working so hard at your job and all the extra stuff you do to make the company a better place to work.

Trying to think of polite ways to put this ... this, uh, expects a lot of your hypothetical bosses. I mean, so much so that I am not sure that it really applies to the universe in which I and the rest of the people I am familiar with actually live. If that applies to you, great. If it doesn't... well, dicking off on the clock has an immediate ROI and doesn't depend on your boss to recognize the value of your 'contribution'.

Particularly if you are not paid by the hour... unless you have real confidence--and I mean, asking your most cold-ass, mercenary, cynical friend, and imagining what they are going to say--that your extra effort is really, truly going to pay off for you personally, don't do it. Fuck around. Edit Wikipedia. Do OpenStreetMaps. Create masterworks in MS Paint. Write a novel. Whatever. Don't give up your labor for free, unless you are really sure it's going to be worthwhile.

Too many people give up their loyalty to institutions--abstract entities of which corporations are but one example--that cannot by definition ever return those feelings. It is always a mistake to get emotionally invested in them, and you will always get burned in the end. Reserve your loyalty for people, who are at least capable of returning your commitment.

Loyalty to a person may be misplaced, but it is rarely indefensible; loyalty to an abstract institution is always so.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:57 PM on November 8, 2014 [1 favorite]


Too many people give up their loyalty to institutions--abstract entities of which corporations are but one example--that cannot by definition ever return those feelings. It is always a mistake to get emotionally invested in them, and you will always get burned in the end. Reserve your loyalty for people, who are at least capable of returning your commitment.

Seconded. I did try the "volunteer for side projects that improve the company" thing at my last job - I basically wrote a users' manual up for a piece of expense-report-filing software that everyone in my department was complaining was cumbersome, and for which no one had received any training. (And that was after also having been one of the beta-testers for that software and making all sorts of warnings about the difficulty of its use, all of which were ignored.) People were constantly asking me how to use it, and I wrote that up to just give them - two other secretaries asked for copies themselves so they could also give it out to their teams. It is STILL being distributed to bankers there two years later, and I was praised to the skies for writing it.

I was still laid off after working there only a year and a half. And I was part of a round of layoffs that included about ten other people from the office, including a guy who'd been there 20 years. And that was the fourth round of layoffs I saw happen in the year and a half I was working there.

Among the many things I appreciate about my current position is that they are much better about actually giving me things to do, and noticing what my talents actually are so that these things to do actually fit. I mentioned in passing in the office that I am a travel blogger, and recently someone asked if I could write a "tourists guide" for some visiting dignitaries "because you write travel, so you'd probably be good at this". Having the work you do acknowledged and responded to is fucking amazing, and gives me a lot more confidence that they actually want me to stay.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:18 AM on November 9, 2014 [1 favorite]


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