Slacking Workers of the World Unite

We’ve made an art of wasting time at work. But to what end?

Lindsay Beyerstein

A feature of the modern economy is that work has often become decoupled from tangible production, making productivity difficult to measure. (Shutterstock / Bikeriderlondon)

Seventy percent of porn viewing and 60 percent of online shopping take place during business hours. Studies indicate that worldwide, the average employee spends about 1 to 3 hours a day goofing off at work.

It turns out that slacking requires 'planning, collaboration, risk calculation and ethical consideration.'

In Empty Labor: Idleness and Workplace Resistance, Roland Paulsen, a scholar of business administration at Lund University in Sweden, sets out to understand what he calls empty labor, which includes anything a worker does on the clock that isn’t work — be it surfing the web, sleeping, organizing the office football pool, or writing a doctoral dissertation on the sly.

Paulsen focused on the most extreme shirkers. He interviewed 43 Swedish workers who claimed to spend less than half of their work hours actually working. He tracked down these hardcore non-performers through friends of friends, web ads and the Swedish website mas​ka​.nu, where people share slacking stories and tips. Most were white-collar workers, but a construction worker, a security guard and several house cleaners also participated. Paulsen’s interviews were designed to answer two basic questions: How do you get away with this? and Why do you do it?

It turns out that slacking off is serious business: “ Doing nothing’ while at work can be a very demanding activity requiring planning, collaboration, risk calculation, and ethical consideration,” Paulsen observes. Some subjects turned shirking into a game they found more meaningful than their actual jobs.

Even when productivity is difficult to measure, presence is easily quantified. In order to get ahead, workers have to be seen to show up early and leave late. Many of Paulsen’s informants said they put a lot of effort into punctuality and attendance (as well as personal grooming), which made managers less likely to question their low performance.

Paulsen concludes that the most successful slackers have jobs with high opacity,” which means that other people have a hard time grokking what they actually do or how long it’s supposed to take.

Uber-slackers are taking advantage of a feature of the modern economy: It is unusually conducive to empty labor. We are often told that people are working longer and harder than ever, and that may well be true, on average. But in many jobs, work has become decoupled from tangible production, making productivity difficult to measure.

A web developer told Paulsen that her team gave inflated time estimates for projects they didn’t want to do, and nobody could contradict them, because only the web team knew how long it should take to build a website. When a client wanted to put flying sanitary napkins on a company website, the team claimed it would take weeks, instead of the short time it would actually require.

On the question of why people spend so much time goofing off, Paulsen distills some common themes. Some said their jobs were so miserable, or so meaningless, that they felt compelled to goof off in order to endure them. Others said they wasted time at work to get back at an abusive boss, annoying coworkers or a firm that stole their wages.

Paulsen was surprised to discover how much empty labor was involuntary. Subjects often told him they were simply trying to occupy themselves because there wasn’t enough work for them to do, either because their workload waxed and waned or because their managers were too incompetent to make sure they had enough to do.

A few said they wasted time in order to rebel against the system generally.

It’s like killing two birds with one stone,” a security officer told Paulsen, You both avoid selling yourself entirely, and still get paid for watching movies.” The officer said slacking was his preferred method of being a thorn in the side of capitalism.” Unlike union activities, which never seemed to him to produce results, slacking paid off right away.

Paulsen isn’t the first to make the connection between slacking and resistance. The Industrial Workers of the World, which flourished in the early 20th century, endorsed various work-thwarting-tactics, ranging from soldiering” (going through the motions, as slowly as possible) to shirking to sabotage. Unlike their sworn enemies at the American Federation of Labor, who championed the intrinsic dignity of labor and envisioned a future of well-paid jobs for all, the IWW Wobblies saw waged work as a coercive system that should be resisted overtly and covertly: If you couldn’t strike, you should shirk. In their view, shirking was a kind of redistribution of wealth because you got the same pay for less effort.

Paulsen raises an important question: If slacking is an effective form of resistance, why don’t employers do more to combat it? If the average worker really spends a quarter of her eight-hour day slacking off, that’s a huge inefficiency. Slacking is by definition covert, but management must also be somewhat complicit, turning a blind eye to infractions. The Internet is a major time-waster, and most employers say they monitor employees’ web use. It seems like bosses could easily crack down harder, if they wanted to.

Some of Paulsen’s white-collar subjects told him that being allowed to slack off made them feel important. In this view, permitting some slacking can be a very cheap perk. Ignoring the occasional extended lunch hour is a bargain if it makes workers feel like valued professionals who are paid for their output rather than harried wage-earners who must account for every minute of their time. Who knows? Some employees might even be willing to compromise on salary or benefits in exchange for a fun” or laid back” workplace.

Perhaps this explains why Google and some other new economy” companies have proudly institutionalized empty labor, with workplace amenities like video game consoles, nap pods and beer nights. Some of these are offered in the name of reducing stress or enhancing creativity. Cynics, however, say that corporate cultures of fun” are really cultures of cut-rate bribery, where companies induce workers to put in more hours with cheap incentives, instead of paying them better wages.

Paulsen also suggests that the celebration of empty labor by tech companies is a form of corporate conspicuous consumption. He thinks Google is showing off what a rich company it is by flaunting the amount of paid idleness it supports.

Unlike Paulsen’s subjects, the Wobblies weren’t content to eke out an illicit nap here, or a few unearned” dollars there. For the IWW, soldiering and shirking were means to a larger end. They saw soldiering and shirking as components of organized resistance within rapidly modernizing factories where workers’ control over their output was being usurped by assembly-line production and scientific management.” The Wobblies’ ultimate goal was to unite all working people into One Big Union that would seize the means of production and abolish work for wages.

Paulsen’s slackers have no such grand ambitions. Even the most politically minded see slacking as a way to extract as much as they can for themselves from the existing system. Empty labor can make stifling jobs feel more meaningful, but it’s hard to see how this constitutes resistance, if it enables people to keep doing the same bad jobs.

Paulsen concludes that rampant slacking isn’t hurting capitalism all that much. Nor is he convinced that slacking off at work is an effective form of psychological resistance, given that many subjects saw their idleness as involuntary or unenjoyable.

In the end, the most Paulsen can say about empty labor is that it underscores the absurdities of an economy where people are paid for their time rather than their output. Huge numbers of people are working significantly fewer hours than they’re getting paid for, and the system grinds on just the same.

This is the shoddy reward that workers get for dramatically increased productivity: The work of an 8-hour day now fits comfortably into a 6-hour day. Corporate profits are skyrocketing, but the average worker is still obliged to sit around for 8 hours, on call for the boss. So, who’s stealing time from whom?

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Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The Nation, Ms. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times’ City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (http://​www​.hill​man​foun​da​tion​.org/​h​i​l​l​m​a​nblog), a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.
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