“Efficiency is Punished” How Appearing Busy Became More Important Than Working

Most corporations hire people for a reason. A job needs to get done, and they need someone with the right skills to do it. 

Somewhere along the way, doing the job got lost, replaced by a constant show of “being busy” that accomplishes nothing. 

Why do employees go to great lengths to appear busy, and why do companies applaud this busy work?

Looking Busy Means Working

It started with a joke. Of course, like all cultural phenomena, we can’t know when or how exactly it started, but we can look to pop culture for examples. 

George Costanza from Seinfeld perfected the art of getting out of work by appearing busy. He constantly appeared flustered and annoyed, leaving the impression that he was too busy to take on more tasks (despite not really doing anything).

It was funny then, and it’s funny now because it’s true. Looking busy, rather than actually being busy, is crucial to career success. 

Efficiency Gets Punished

Efficient workers find ways to complete their work in less time. They work smarter, not harder, creating tools and algorithms to streamline their processes. They focus, prioritizing work over fooling around and water cooler banter. 

You’d think these employees would reap rewards for their innovation and dedication, but the opposite is typically true. 

The water cooler schmoozers get promoted, while the efficient employees get gifted more work. In worst-case scenarios, the innovators get fired when managers realize they can hire someone else to run the programs they developed at half the cost. 

Taking Down Time Personally

Companies don’t see their employees as people; they see them as dollars floating away from their profit machine. Every second they’re paying someone not to work is a few pennies more they could have earned. 

To ensure they get their money’s worth, they force employees to do menial jobs if they have any downtime. Office workers get asked to vacuum or perform busy work to avoid the watchful supervisor’s ire, while warehouse workers and service workers constantly hear the annoying adage, “If you have time to lean, you have time to clean.”

God forbid an employee rest for a few seconds. 

Perfecting the Art of Looking Busy

As a result of this massive disregard for efficiency and employee wellness for the sake of endless, unnecessary labor, workers mastered performative business. 

Employees, fearful of being assigned even more work for daring to get their job done promptly, feign business to avoid their boss’s attention. They frantically type nothing into their keyboard and schedule pointless meetings no one cares about to show they’re working throughout the day. 

A Better System

No one stops to think about how pointless most of this performance really is. No real work gets accomplished. Instead, people waste hours of valuable time trying to look busy. 

There’s a better way to work. 

First, managers can simply back off and let their employees do their jobs. They don’t need to micromanage every second and can allow people to rest on occasion. 

Second, we can shorten the work day. Most people aren’t productive for eight straight hours, so why do we expect them to work eight hours per day? If we reduced work hours (without reducing pay), we’d get a massive boost in productivity and employee wellness. 

Third, we could pay people for their work rather than their hours and let people leave when there’s no work. If something comes up, they can handle it remotely. 

The world has changed, and our work life should change with it.