Tuesday, November 04, 2014

On Not Working

This article from the Atlantic on not being busy at work managed to hit close to home and also widely miss the mark.

As a graduate student and a former civil servant...yes, take that in folks - not having much to do is a topic that I can clearly speak to with great authority!

When I try to describe being out of the civil service to people, I always want to be balanced in my sentiment, mainly because this is really how I feel - most of my closest friends are people I met in the public service, and I can safely say that there were many days in the various jobs I had where I felt like I was "making a difference" in some way and also working my ass off.

But there were other times...those times, they were like being in a kind of prison.  I would say this to people, and they would laugh (laugh! because you're a civil servant, so how bad can it be?).  There were times where I would go to work, and there was no work to do, and I had to be there, but I couldn't do my own thing, so all I could do was sit, finding things to do that skirted the edges of office culture etiquette.  Actually, I hear that in prison, you can take courses and work out. (No, I'm not saying that prison is better than an office job, I'm making an analogy and using a joke to illustrate it.) The first few weeks of this, especially after being busy, come as a relief.  But then the rot sets in..

You know why lots of people surf the Internet at their jobs?  Because if they were reading a book they would immediately be castigated for "slacking".  In a white collar environment, people sleep where they poop when it comes to their work - that's what the Alt-Tab key command is for.  Smartphones have only made this worse - it's now acceptable to check your phone every three seconds even though you're really reading Gawker and not texting a local official about emergency preparedness.

I even did what the article dutifully told me to do, and I spoke to my bosses about my lack of work, and they would throw things my way, but it was usually something that took about 15 minutes out of an 8 hour day.  I had been hired specifically to do a particular job, but when I arrived it turned out that a bunch of other people were already doing the job, and also had the resources behind them to do it.  All I could do was tag along.

The irony of course was that there were other people in the office who were busy. Those busy people, perhaps unsurprisingly, resented those of us with not much to do.  And I don't blame them!  There is so much shame associated with being a civil servant to begin with, that being one of those civil servants, without a lot to do...it's not the best psychological environment for anyone.

I have also been one of those busy people.  For a number of years, I would get into the office, sit down, and basically write until I went home at the end of the day.  And then I would go home and mentally prepare what I had to write for the next day so that I could do it efficiently enough to get through the day.  These jobs are great because at that moment, we feel as though we're alive.

But being busy isn't nearly as newsworthy or interesting as collecting a pay cheque for doing nothing, so I'll go back to that.

It didn't help that I was working for Don Draper, except that instead of Don Draper, it was an idiot who thought s/he was Don Draper.  Indeed, those in charge would obstruct my desire to pursue other things because, wait for it, my pretend real job was too important!  My office chair wasn't going to warm itself!  And who was going to write that presentation which, after months of deliberation, would be thrown out the window at the last minute for a completely different approach that no one had agreed to and would invariably be completely ignored by the people we were targeting because it sounded "cool".

The most work I ever did in that office was helping people in a completely different department with their communications.  They were nearby, and they liked me, so in effect, I wound up working for a department that I didn't work for, simply out of sheer boredom.  But I enjoyed helping them, so it made things worthwhile until I resigned.

So, the major failing of this article - it attempts to be sympathetic to people working in a situation similar to mine, but it frames the entire debate as being one where the workers are "slacking", or "lazy", or "worthless", and placing all of the responsibility for their onto the workers themselves, who rarely have a lot of control over their own work. 

Did I procrastinate sometimes? Yup.  Was I always performing at my optimum capacity?  Nope.  Did I hire myself into a job that had no duties attached to it, when it was sold as an exciting super-busy opportunity?  Uhhhh....

I can point to many times in my adult life where my boredom in a job translated into some really good opportunities because out of the boredom came a certain amount of creativity.  But creating your own opportunities can be pretty threatening to the status quo as well, which is why it's often easier to keep someone around doing nothing than it is to let them do whatever they wanted - indeed, in a supreme irony, the one thing I would consider my biggest accomplishment at my time in this most Kafkaesque of  jobs was the thing that got me into the most trouble.  So it's tough to stay motivated in a situation like that.

But off the top of my head I can see all kinds of reasons why most people spend more time on the Internet than working, none of which involve making the people who work in these kinds of situations feel more shame, or a perverse sense that they're "gaming the system".

The reality is that if I weren't sitting in that office, exchanging my time for a salary, the good taxpaying citizens of Ontario, many of whom are also doing nothing at their jobs while reading celebrity blogs or shopping online, would be outraged over how some civil servant wasn't at their desk doing nothing in their job!  And they would share their outrage with you on Twitter and Facebook during their own office hours.  And we would all point out fingers at all the hypocrisy going on, while nothing changed.

Perhaps instead we should be asking how it is we live in a world where doing something that interests you, even for smart, talented people, is becoming increasingly difficult at the very moment when it's supposed to be easier than ever.   Or how we manage to live in the richest societies in human history, and there is not enough work to go around in an office, but also not enough jobs for everyone to be gainfully employed.

Maybe constantly shaming people for their circumstances isn't the best thing to do, even though it's pretty much the foundation of discourse on the Internet.

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