Towards a modern theory of office work…

A hundred years ago when Henry had Model T’s sliding off the assembly line at River Rouge, the standard 8-hour work day made some kind of sense. That line ran at a steady clip for 8 hours and each person performed X task or attached Y widget. One task necessarily had to follow the other and it all needed to be synchronous.

Easily one of the most farcical things in the world is the idea that assembly line techniques should be applied to working with information. As a desk jockey, my work is annoying but synchronous. A large portion of the things I touch over the course of the day depend on input from one or more people who may a) be out of the office; b) have other competing or higher priority issues; c) need to gather additional information from one or more other people; or d) have retired on duty and don’t give a rat’s ass who needs what or when. As often as not, there’s no particular order of operations because Task A isn’t necessarily reliant on Task B being all the way done.

In spite of the work being largely asynchronous, my work day is a regularly scheduled 8.5 hours. The hours are more or less fixed. And you can count on one hand the number of days I’ve worked in the last 20 years that have included a full 8 hours of production. On my best days, an easy two or more hours is pissed away just by waiting for other people to do something or provide some information. On days that are not the absolute best, productive time might be just one or two hours with the rest being lost in the sauce.

The real ridiculous bit of this is that regardless of whether time is productive or not, the expectation is that you’re mostly at your desk for the duration. It feeds the age-old illusion that the appearance of work is far more important than the reality of being productive, in spite of any logic to the contrary.

It seems to me that once you’ve cleared the deck of the day’s required work – whether that took you three hours or eight, your day should be pretty much done; Congratulations! You’ve won at working today. Get on outta here. The notion, most often held by those of the managerial persuasion, that people with time on their hands should cast around looking to pick up work from someone else is patently ridiculous. It’s a sure path to end up not just being assigned your work, but also some of the workload for two or three of the local office slugs. Instead, by common consent, what really happens is we stay firmly ensconced at our desks providing the illusion of productivity, but being 300 posts deep in r/AmItheAsshole.

Look, people are going to abuse whatever system you put in place. We seem to be hard wired to get away with whatever we can get away with. All I’m saying is that applying 1920’s industrial management principles to an information workforce in the 2020’s might not be getting anyone the best bang for their buck… but it’s the path of least resistance, so here we are.

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