Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Doing Nothing at Work

[Creative-Commons License]

Nice Washington Post piece on things that have become obsolete. Here’s one I miss this one,

Doing Nothing at the Office

b. 1853 -- d. mid-1990s

The 20th century's best minds might have brought us many wonders fantastic (Decaf soy lattes! Shoulder-fired missiles! Plastic!), but what is truly stunning is the number of office hours Americans clocked during those same years doing . . . nothing much. Taking a cigarette break could sometimes nudge the minute hand a little. The water cooler was also created for this purpose. And paper clips. But in those many empty moments between tasks, much time was spent staring into space.

The patron saint of office inaction could be Herman Melville's Bartleby the scrivener, who sloughed off the responsibilities of his job in the dead letter office with a succinct, "I would prefer not to." But in some professions, downtime was practically a requirement of the job, and higher-ups would charge underlings with figuring out how to use it.

"When I started in the early '80s, there were word-processing centers," recalls attorney Howard Gutman, a partner at Williams & Connolly. "A 120-page brief could take two hours, and one mistake and you'd have to do it over again. Printing places would vie for business by having beds and food. If you were a young lawyer, sitting and waiting there really was your job."

Idle time's death knell was the Internet, which created a way to fill every moment while giving the appearance of productivity. The joys of making wastebasket two-pointers and using Scotch tape to extract nasal blackheads pale when compared with the minute-hand-massaging possibilities of Craigslist and YouTube. According to Nielsen ratings, the average American visits more than 2,000 Web pages a month while on the clock; surveys by Vault.com suggest that close to 90 percent of workers spend part of their day doing Internet browsing that's unrelated to work.


During the early days of my career, in the mid-1980s I worked in an office without computers. My boss liked to use carbon paper, but we were the dinosaurs of the office suite. The hip, techno geeks in the other offices laughed, “Why do you still use carbon paper when you can type the letter and walk down the hall to the copy room.” Yes, the copy room, that was high tech. You wrote letters long-hand, the secretary typed them up on the IBM Selectric, and then she walked down the hall to wait in line with the other secretaries to make copies.

But I do miss the down-time. Without the internet, I usually filled the down time talking to the secretaries or other staff folks. We tend to underestimate the value of office gossip. It leads to institutional knowledge. I would also look through files. I kid you not! Just pick out a file folder or two and read through them, looking at old correspondence, reports, etc. I probably was a more well-rounded person for the effort. Down time forced me to reflect on what I was doing and learn more about the issues we faced.

There is still a lot of down time in offices, but now I fill the time in solitary pursuits like checking blogs or news sources on the web. This is valuable stuff – in my opinion – but totally unrelated to the business at hand. I still have files I could read through – though most of the content is stored electronically. But to tell the truth, if faced with 5 or 10 minutes of down time before a meeting, I’d rather check my email quick, and then surf the web. Seldom do I leave my cube to talk to a colleague.

What are we losing? I don’t really know. Personally, I feel less well-rounded, less aware of the big picture of the projects I’m working on. I probably have less institutional knowledge because I just don’t spend as much time talking to colleagues or looking through the old files.

Hat tip: Newmark’s Door.

1 comment:

Cate Ross said...

I am currently reading "Then We Came To The End" by Josh Ferris--and at half-way through the book it is ALL ABOUT doing nothing at work.

But in a good way.

Ask S about it--she's probably read it already. (Hi S!)