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When employees are on the clock, most managers expect them to keep busy throughout the workday. This may mean either completing tasks within their remits or finding ways to make sure their hands are in some work-related project. Even when workflows deliver some downtime, the message from management is generally clear: find a way to keep working.
Managers step in with ‘busywork’ to keep their employees occupied. Busywork is something that doesn't have a purpose. It doesn't lead towards reaching any goals, it doesn't improve the person, the operation or the culture.
The Busywork might include compiling a pointless report, colour-coding a spreadsheet or proofreading a presentation that has already been checked.
One 2016 study of 600 knowledge workers showed they spent just 39% of their workdays doing their actual jobs, with the rest dedicated to meetings, emails and busywork such as writing status reports for managers.
Part of the busywork problem is some managers equate busyness with productivity.
The perception is not just that a busy worker is engaged and making an effort, but even that their industriousness gives them a higher moral value than their less busy colleagues. This sets up a dynamic in which two office workers completing identical tasks can be judged on their busyness, rather than their results.
Who appears to be more engaged: the busy worker who skips lunch to get things finished, or the efficient worker who finishes early and uses the time saved to buy groceries online?
The Busywork problem is heightened in organisations where work culture dictates that managers operate in a more traditional, authoritative style, discouraging autonomy among employees.
In these organisations, managers may also feel under pressure from their own superiors to prove that their team is busy and productive.
Managers are saying, ‘I need my employees to keep generating work so that I know they’re earning their salary, because somebody is watching me to make sure that I'm managing them well'.
Remote work has, in some cases, exacerbated this pressure. When employees first switched to remote work, many managers found the inability to visually monitor their employees unsettling. In the immediacy of Covid, bosses felt that if they couldn’t see employees working, then they weren’t working. They didn’t think employees were being productive, even if they were still delivering results.
A 2020 study showed that 41% of managers questioned their employees’ motivation, and almost a third doubted that their employees had the right knowledge or essential skills to make remote work successful.
When higher-ups doubt employees’ work ethic, one solution is to micromanage their time with an endless list of tasks to keep them chained to their desks – even if some of those tasks are pointless.
Managers may not even know if an employee has finished their core work, but they are giving additional busywork to ensure that they don't finish for the day. This is to ensure that employees are working, so the manager has a sense that they are still in control.
It is not just managers who equate industriousness with good performance, however. One study showed knowledge workers spend an average of 41% of their time at work on self-assigned busywork that could be delegated to others, in order to appear busier and more important at work.
Online, the pressure to look busy remains, even if that means adding extra tasks to the workday, like sending messages to prove we are logged on. And even though many workers are able to complete their work in less time in remote-work environments, many still feel the pressure to assign themselves busywork.
Some managers report lulls in work during remote set-ups have made employees uneasy. These managers start to assign busywork just to ensure that workers don't feel a void, and remain occupied.
But assigning too much busywork to mitigate guilt might mean swapping one set of negative feelings for another. A 2018 study showed 42% of workers were spending half of their time on busywork, and 71% said that doing too much busywork made them feel as though their lives were being wasted.
In the long-term, frequently assigning tasks designed primarily to keep workers occupied can damage the relationship between managers and their workers.
It can be very demotivating to the remote employee. It's a sign of lack of trust and lack of care. The real tragedy of busywork is in the opportunity that is lost. There’s so much that could be done within that time that would be beneficial to both the employee and the firm.
Some alternatives for busywork: Assigning the worker meaningful tasks or opportunities for growth that often gets put on the back burner, such as training.
A great way is to let employees take a breather. Numerous studies have proven the benefits of taking regular breaks during the workday. Among them are reduced stress and improved focus, creativity and productivity – all positives for employees and their organisations.
When remote workers are putting in increasingly long hours, piling on endless busywork will have the opposite effect. The primary risk is that employees burn out and their mental wellness is impacted.
This Great Resignation is the result, in part, of exhausted people who are not managed effectively in their remote work because it wasn't flexible enough.
Apart from giving meaningful work, another approach is to give teams autonomy, which is motivating and creates a virtuous cycle, where people want to do a good job.
Managers need to think harder about the kind of tasks they are handing out. The idea is to keep employees busy during work hours, but avoid busywork. Instead, they should plan for slow periods, and look for tasks they can give that will add value.
Ultimately, managers who feel caught in a cycle of assigning busywork should take a step back and think more broadly about what their managers want from them – rather than scrambling to keep people busy.
They're probably looking for you to generate good results and, hopefully, retain people who are happy working for you.
If the flexible schedules now in demand swap work hours for outcomes, they could take busywork with them, and leave healthier, happier workers in their wake.
I wish I knew about the 80/20 rule much earlier.
Stop giving superficial and useless work to employees just to keep them busy.
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