(Inspired by this stroke of genius)
Eleven years ago this summer, I had what held the title for many years as My Worst Job Ever. It involved working at a very popular — and very frantic — fast food restaurant. It sucked for so many reasons that it would require 3-D technology to address them all. One of the worst aspects was that we were always required to “look busy.” For example, even if we had just finished servicing both of our drive-thru lines and the walkup window, organized our facilities, replenished our supplies and satisfied every other low-tide duty, our manager would still bark at us to, “Look busy! Even if you have nothing to do, I want you to pretend like you’re doing something!” Talking to my co-worker friends didn’t count as looking busy; listlessly wiping the same surface 25 times did, as well as bouncing up and down in place (seriously). This especially irritated me at the time, because I had severe back and leg pains that would land me under the knife two months later. Standing still was often the only way to enjoy a respite from the pain. But hey, those surfaces weren’t going to wipe themselves clean 25 times!
On my list of concepts I wish were cancer so I could laser them to death, “looking busy” is near the top. Is there anything more indicative of the problems with the American work force than having to “look busy”?
Looking busy requires emphasis on the word “looking.” Depending on the job you do, it can be as simple as silently browsing the Internet in your cubicle (which brings lethargy after long enough). In more physically demanding jobs, it’s a farce and a waste of very real and very precious energy. Either way, looking busy can be draining, which makes your real work suffer. But I guess that’s worth it if someone is monitoring the workplace by camera and gauges productivity entirely by how well employees flail their bodies (or don’t) on screen.
Another problem with looking busy lies in the “busy” part. We apparently long ago decided that work isn’t work unless we’re so harried from it that we can barely function afterward. Picture the on-the-go person with a phone jammed in their ear, with one hand full of papers and lunch in the other — we often consider that person to possess a strong work ethic, instead of being a horribly overworked and poorly prioritized quasi-cog who will burn out by 35.
Personally, I’ve never been that type of person. I don’t think there’s any virtue of looking, or even actually being, busy for its own sake. I believe in doing any task as quickly and efficiently as I can, which — as anyone who works that way can tell you — is a good way to signal to busybodies that you’re either too lazy (!!) or too underworked. (I’ll never forget the night our team at one warehouse job literally set a speed record for fulfilling store needs; after briefly recognizing it as a phenomenal achievement, management declared it to be our new standard. Ever try setting or matching a record every night? It’s in the book for a reason!)
The common thread in all of my worst work-related experiences was a supervisor who believed that every second on the clock was a second where they could grind you into the ground. For them, workers were robots that never needed a break, no matter how big or small their responsibilities. In those situations, work isn’t a means to get something accomplished — work is a way of working. It doesn’t matter what the results are, as long as the road to those results is sufficiently long and bumpy. And for what? I’m often at my busiest when I’m not working for a paycheck at all. Conversely, some of my best paid work requires very little effort.
So screw being busy. I’d rather be productive.