In Italy, there’s a phrase,’giacca civetta’, or ‘owl jacket’, to describe a jacket slung over a chair late at night, while its owner enjoys ‘la dolca vita’. Today, with work seemingly demanding more of us than ever, it is no surprise to witness the rise of extreme fudgelling.
Academic, Erin Reid, recently spent time at an unnamed management consultancyIna recent study, the academic Erin Reid spent time at an unnamed US management consultancy that expects total employee devotion; responding to midnight emails, cancelling social arrangements to stay late, basically devoting one’s life to the company. She discovered that 31% of men and 11% of women found ways to ‘pass’ as workaholics: they vanished from work without telling anyone, or made covert deals with colleagues so they could spend time with their families.
And what happened? It worked. People who made formal arrangements to reduce their workloads – more often women – got penalised for not pulling their weight. Yet the fake workaholics, predominantly men, were seen as no less devoted to their jobs than the real ones, and were rewarded accordingly. This might say something about Italian chauvinism, but it also shows that what was being rewarded wasn’t relentless work, but the appearance of relentless work.
A good term for this is ‘signalling’; in this case, how we communicate the message that work’s getting done, which isn’t always the case. At firms, such as the one Reid studied, the gap between the two can spell disaster, as time and energy are poured into keeping up appearances.
But almost every job involves at least some signalling. It’s a little troubling, in fact, to ask how much of one’s own work involves telling people what you’re doing – at meetings, in updates to bosses, and so on – rather than actually doing it. More troubling still, it’s perfectly possible to engage in signalling to yourself. How else to describe writing something you’ve already done on a to-do list, so you can cross it out? Or powering through five unimportant tasks, at the end of an unproductive day, to feel like you’ve accomplished something?
The bleak implication of Reid’s findings, is that we should be more Machiavellian. If you’re overburdened by work, don’t assume you must ask permission to downscale; consider whether you might get away with just doing less work. Still, it would be better if organisations didn’t require the pretence of workaholism to begin with, and here Reid’s study offers hope.
We tend to assume the demands of business are inevitably in tension with the quest for a balanced life. But the fakers’ managers and clients rated their output as highly as anyone else’s; clearly, doing a bit less work didn’t damage the bottom line.
Bosses, in short, could afford to encourage more humane work cultures if they chose to, without sacrificing success. Those who continue to insist on insane hours can get fudgelled.