Still not convinced that there is a pretending-to-work phenomenon? To follow-up on my previous post, They need to see you there to know that you are working… Not!, this post explores answers to who is likely to pretend to work and why. After digging deeper on the Internet for more information on this topic, I discovered a unique coaching service catering to employees at the website Looking Busy: 50 Ways to Look Busy at Work Even When You’re Not.
According to this website, Looking Busy coach, Jay Schorr has over 15 years of experience looking busy at work and is in demand by both employees interested in learning how to look busy and by managers interested in identifying “looking busy” behavior. Now curious, I emailed him to inquire if he is currently coaching and asked how he came to the realization that his service would be helpful to many people. The answer is, yes, he is currently coaching. Moreover, Jay Schorr’s response addresses why it behooves employees to act busy:
In a tough economy, jobs are not only hard to come by, they are hard to keep. Layoffs, cutbacks and outsourcing all have made it imperative for workers to do everything they can to make it look like they’re invaluable to their employers. That means going to extraordinary lengths to maximize productivity (or at least to look like you’re maximizing productivity!) every minute in the workplace. And that’s not always easy when there’s the inevitable idle or down time.
As America’s Looking Busy Coach, it is my job to help Americans keep their jobs by looking busy at work … even when they’re not. Bosses like nothing better than to see their workers hard at work, or at least appear to be hard at work.
Here is Looking Busy coach, Drew Sattee, demonstrating this coaching service to CBS Sunday morning news viewers:
What I extrapolated from this is that, as long as managers manage more by sight than by results (hence emphasizing employees’ physical presence and appearances), it is advantageous for employees to act busy regardless of whether or not they are busy. Those of us who are genuinely busy but less expressive, calm, and unflappable should take note!
To my surprise, I have a hard time convincing people that a good contingent of the workforce 1) pretends to work and 2) are disengaged. Employee engagement reports show considerable variation with regard to the proportion of engaged versus disengaged workers. However, it seems safe to say that about two-thirds of the workforce is not engaged. According to the June 2009 issue of Research Works: Partnership for Workplace Mental Health
, only 1 out of 5 employees are highly engaged. The international trends are, by the way, quite interesting (p. 4): Mexico (40%) and Brazil (31%) had the highest percentage of their workforce who were highly engaged, followed by the United States (21%) and Canada (17%), with Europe (11%) and Asia (7%) having the lowest levels of employee engagement. However, this Right Management
report puts it at 1 out of every 3 workers being engaged (with a graph of country differences on page 5) and this 2012 Global Workforce Study by Towers Watson
agrees, stating that 35% of the workforce is highly engaged.
Although there very well may be situations where engaged employees need to resort to looking busy during down times, my personal experience leads me to think that engaged employees are more apt to try coming up with activities that add value to their organization in their down time when compared to disengaged employees. Thus, I suspect that there is overlap between the pretending-to-work and employee disengagement phenomena. Now, I do believe disengaged employees are trying to hang on to their jobs as well, otherwise why even pretend to work?
What leads to disengagement in the first place, however, is a mismatch between the employee and various aspects of the job (e.g., the employees’ role, tasks, working conditions, or values). So under this condition, trying to power through at a job that is ill-suited for a person leads to burnout and, hence, disengagement. This is something that I think most people can understand. Just take some time to think about what kind of work energizes you and what kind of work drains you. Also think about people you know who would love to do something that you hate to do and vice versa. For myself, I enjoy researching as well as thinking in-depth and writing about issues I find interesting, but I hate mundane housework type tasks (e.g. it looks like I’m playing Jenga
with dishes in my kitchen sink).
Finally, managers who discover “looking busy” behavior and find out that an employee is disengaged should first check and see if the employee can be re-engaged. Strike up a conversation to see if there is a way to adjust the work situation to be more suitable and motivating. This could involve redesigning the job to whatever extent possible. If the problem can be fixed, it will save the organization the expense of recruiting, hiring, and training another. Here is an example of the type of conversation a manager may want to have with the employee: