Some years ago I had a colleague I’ll call June. It seemed that every time I went to the ladies’ room, June was there, applying mascara, combing her long, dark tresses and chatting. She also spent lots of time out on the sidewalk smoking, and in the cafeteria. Exceedingly friendly and warm, she knew everyone and devoted much of her day to catching up on their personal news. What she didn’t spend much time on was work. A guy who sat in the cubicle next to hers once told me that he estimated she put in just two hours a day of what could be described as productive labor.
Eric Abrahamson, a professor at Columbia Business School who specializes in leadership and organizational problem solving, calls people like June “Michelangelos of work avoidance.” Abrahamson studies workplace fads and time management and has looked closely at the ways some employees manage to get paid to do nothing. He doesn’t advocate their practices, but he says that understanding them can help managers address office inequities and make their teams more productive.
Work-avoidance Michelangelos know how to stay idle while suffering no consequences or, in some cases, even getting promoted. June lasted in her job for more than a decade before finally being laid off, and when her termination came it had little to do with her lack of productivity. The office was automating her job.
One of her skills was spending little time at her desk or anywhere near the department where she supposedly worked, so that her bosses didn’t even think about her much. Out of sight, out of mind, you might say. “If people don’t think of you, they can’t give you work,” Abrahamson says. Other ways to accomplish that: Arrive at different, unpredictable times of day. Work from home. Set up your schedule so that you frequently change locations.
Another tactic: Don’t empty your voicemail box. That way when people call they’ll get the impression you’re working so hard you don’t even have time to delete messages. This has the added advantage of making it impossible for bosses or colleagues to leave you verbal instructions about work assignments.
If your boss does manage to track you down and try to give you some work, you can strategically deploy a kind of good-natured cluelessness. “The principle here is that you try to give work to a person and come to the conclusion that they can’t even understand the instructions,” Abrahamson explains. In such a case most bosses will figure it’s easier to do the work themselves.
If you perform a specialized function within your office, you can distort the time it takes to get it done. Among June’s supposed jobs was keeping time sheets for her department’s staff. No one else knew the system she’d set up or how long keeping the data took. Thus she could make a task that took minutes appear to consume hours of toil. People with computer expertise who work among Luddites can easily exploit this tactic.
Then there’s what Abrahamson calls the anticipatory screw-up. Make it clear to your boss, in the most pleasant way possible, that you will fail at the assignment she wants to give you. “You don’t have to fail,” advises Abrahamson. “You just have to be clear that you’re going to fail.” Most smart bosses will then give the job to someone else.
Appearing overworked can be a surefire way to avoid further assignments. If anyone asks you how you’re doing, simply reply, “I am working so hard, I don’t even have time to go to the bathroom.” (For June, this line would obviously not apply.) Another good one: “I’m so busy I think I’m coming down with something.”
You can also form an alliance with a colleague to mutually stage the appearance of overwork. Ask me whether Fred can take on a new assignment, and I’d say, “Fred is so busy, he hasn’t been sleeping.” Likewise, if the boss suggested he’d like me to do a project, Fred could say, “Susan can’t possibly take on any more; she’s spent every weekend in the office for the last two months.”
A time-tested tactic for work avoidance: Take credit for the work of others. Especially popular in academia and in political circles and among senior executives, the idea is to grab the glory for a project that you merely supervised or got started rather than spent hours executing.
Finally, there is the burgeoning field of cyberloafing. This takes many forms. You can program your e-mail to send messages in the wee hours while you’re asleep, to give the appearance that you’re toiling away at 2 a.m. Or you can program your computer screen, on which you’re playing your 17th game of solitaire, to display an Excel spreadsheet at the press of a key if you see the boss approaching. “It’s a whole new loafing medium,” Abrahamson says. “Cyberloafing is the work avoidance of the future.”
This article was written by Susan Adams from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.