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The managerial obsession with ‘busywork’

Many managers fill up employees’ plates with inane tasks, just to keep them working. Why are higher-ups so afraid of downtime?

By | Joanna York |

When employees are on the clock, most managers expect them to keep busy through the workday. This may mean either completing tasks within their remits, or finding ways to make sure their hands are in some work-related project. Even when workflows deliver some downtime, the message from management is generally clear: find a way to keep working. 

If workers appear to twiddle their thumbs, some managers step in with ‘busywork’ to keep their employees occupied. “Busywork is something that doesn’t have a purpose,” says leadership and development trainer Randy Clarke, based in Indiana, US. “It doesn’t lead towards reaching any goals, it doesn’t improve the person, the operation or the culture.” 

Examples of busywork might include compiling a pointless report, colour-coding a spreadsheet or proofreading a presentation that has already been checked. One 2016 study of 600 knowledge workers showed they spent just 39% of their workdays doing their actual jobs, with the rest dedicated to meetings, emails and busywork such as writing status reports for managers. 

In the office, managers might assign busywork based on a quick visual check of what employees are doing. But the switch to remote work during the pandemic has changed that, as many managers can no longer easily monitor their employees. While studies suggest many remote employees are significantly more productive, they are also working significantly longer hours. Does this mean that managers are assigning more busywork? And would it really be so bad if employees took a break when there was nothing to do? 

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