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Slackers and Stakhanovites

by Ace Damon

July 11, 2020

AS LAWS GO, the saying developed by C. Northcote Parkinson, a naval historian, was admirably succinct: “The work expands to fill the time available for its completion”. His essay, first published in The Economist in 1955, has stood the test of time, in the sense that people still refer to “Parkinson’s law”. But the experience of working life during the pandemic means that Bartleby would now like to suggest three corollaries to the theorem.

At the beginning of his essay, Parkinson cited the case of an elderly woman who needed a day to send a postcard to her niece. The process involved the time spent searching for glasses, a postcard and an umbrella, in addition to composing the message. The details may be dated, but the idea is still resonant – when faced with a task, people procrastinate.

When it comes to office work, the incentives to delay are pretty clear. Complete one task quickly and the employee will receive another. This second task can be even more unpleasant than the first. Workers can end up like a hamster on a mat, trapped in an endless cycle of unnecessary effort.

Office workers know, however, that the mission itself is not the only thing. It is important to be seen at work. This leads to “presenteeism” – staying at your desk long enough to impress the boss (and even show up when you’re sick). In the pre-Internet era, this would involve an endless overhaul of memos, long phone calls, or significant observation of documents. Thanks to the pioneering work of Tim Berners-Lee, presenteeism now requires less effort: many hours can be wasted on the world wide web.

When working from home, the boss is out of sight, but not out of mind. In general, the result is to divide workers into two factions. The first group, the lazy ones, spent the blockade working the minimum level of effort with which they can get away with. They don’t have to drag each task; they do what is necessary and spend the rest of the day free, sending the work immediately before the deadline. For this group, Parkinson’s law can be changed as follows: “For the disinterested, when not observed, the work decreases to fill the necessary time”.

The second group takes the opposite approach. Consumed by guilt, anxiety about security or ambition at work, they work even harder than before. Being at home, they do not find a clear demarcation between work and leisure time. This group is Stakhanovites (named after a heroically productive miner in the Soviet Union). They demand their own amendment: “For anxious workers at home, work expands to fill all waking hours.”

But Parkinson was making a much broader argument than people’s tendency to be delaying. Most of his essay was concerned with the growth of government bureaucracy. He warned that hiring more civil servants did not necessarily lead to more effective work.

This trend resulted from two factors. First, the authorities want to multiply subordinates, not rivals. Second, employees tend to work for each other. Any officer who feels overwhelmed will ask for two subordinates (asking for only one would create a rival). The senior employee will spend a lot of time checking the work of his subordinates.

How does this process apply to blocking? Like their team, managers also want to appear useful. In the office, they can seem busy walking and talking to their teams. At home, this is more difficult; a call is more intrusive than a casual conversation. The answer is to organize more Zoom meetings.

Bartleby has heard from several contacts over the past few weeks that they spend the day moving from one Zoom meeting to another. As Parkinson suggested, managers are doing more work for each other. Hence the third amendment to his law: “In blocking, Zoom expands to fill all the manager’s available time”.

As these meetings are voluntary, this creates another division between lazy people and Stakhanovites. The first group will avoid these meetings and the second will register for all of them. In addition, in pre-confinement days, employees could earn brownie points by attending such meetings, as long as they attracted the boss’s attention. Mere participation is insufficient for a Zoom meeting; you have to be seen and heard. This in turn prolongs Zoom meetings, further consuming the time of managers and their Stakhanovite subordinates (many lazy people still need to learn to use the “raise their hand” button). It is a digital version of the confusion of roles described by Parkinson 65 years ago.

Editor’s note: Part of the covid-19 coverage is free for readers of The Economist Today, our daily newspaper Newsletter. For more stories and our pandemic tracker, see our hub

This article appeared in the Business section of the print edition, under the title “Updated Parkinson’s Law”

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