• Sharon Chau

daily espresso XII: bullshit jobs

One of my favourite books of all time is by David Graeber, provocatively named Bullshit Jobs: A Theory. As the self-explanatory title suggests, it’s about the rise in so-called ‘bullshit jobs’ which contribute little or nothing to the economy, such as a middle manager in a small firm who pretends to be busy but actually just has one task per day, or the receptionists at big firms whose sole purpose is to signal how said firm is reputable and rich (we have fancy decor and can afford to hire pretty receptionists - now use our financial services!). The book is witty and incisive, and I’d really recommend anyone interested in the profound failure of the capitalist economy to give it a read.


Working as an intern, albeit just for two months, has really opened my eyes up to such bullshit jobs. Actually trying hard is such a scam, because if you finish a task early, you will just be given another task to work on. Hence, the smart thing to do is to drag out your task as long as possible, making sure you still look competent and hardworking, all while doing other things. This attitude isn’t just limited to me - in fact, even some associates who have signed long-term contracts (albeit not the wildly ambitious ones) have expressed such a coping strategy.


As much as I’m enjoying my half-work-half chill time at the office, with my computer screen strategically turned away from my manager, I wonder how companies can avoid this problem. One easiest solution would be to simply set more tasks in the first place, and use output as a benchmark instead of time spent at the office. So if my manager sets me three tasks to complete and says I’m free to go if I’m done with them, I have the incentive to finish them as efficiently as possible. In this instance, I will have a clear reward, i.e. leaving office early, for being diligent. And if my manager sees me completing tasks and leaving early, they can just give me more until a perfect balance is achieved.


A second solution would be to enforce strict discipline, or to have my manager breathe down my neck. If I can’t use my phone or surreptitiously type away at a suspicious Google Doc, I would probably be much more effective. But this is obviously flawed, because the manager probably has a massive workload and can’t just stare at my screen and me all day, and because each manager may have quite a large team to manage. Basically, the cost of enforcement is way too high for this to be feasible. Maybe security cameras? The ethics of infringing privacy are questionable, but since when did companies care!


A third solution is to allow clear progression and rewards for doing well. I know that some of my friends at other internships are working incredibly hard, even voluntarily staying until 9/10pm, because they really want a return offer. That’s one example of a good incentive, even though it does encourage mildly destructive competition and vastly increase stress levels. Another way of incentivising employees would be to allow for more flexible career progression. At lots of big companies, there is a reasonably rigid hierarchy, where you have to work for a set number of years as X before you can be promoted to Y, and a certain number of years as Y before you can be considered for Z. This inflexible structure means promotional opportunities are limited as a motivation to do well, simply because they are too delayed. By making career progression directly proportionate to your effort and performance, you incentivise hard work.


It’s fun brainstorming these possible solutions, but I’m not going to be sharing them with my manager anytime soon…


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