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The Art of Looking Busy

By Christopher Schonberger

It's often kept rather hush hush, but looking busy is one of the greatest skills a worker can have, and not surprisingly many employees go to absurd lengths to create the appearance of industry. I've done it myself. At one of my first internships, there wasn't always a ton of work to go around. And while I tried to make the effort to find work for myself, I'd be lying if I said there weren't afternoons where I just thoughts, "Let's see if I can fake it 'til I make it (to 6PM)."

One of the women I worked with was well attuned to the game I was playing, and whenever she needed something done she would walk over to my desk and preface her request by saying, "Are you working or fake working?" Usually, I was fake working, but on the occasion that I was actually working she respected my time. Mostly because she was also incredibly good at fake working.

In many industries, there are times of the year when things are a little slow. Often, that's right now. And in times of deep economic woes, the chances are high that your workflow is significantly reduced. So is now the time when the "fake workers" will thrive? Or get fired?

According to a recent New York Times article, Working Hard to Look Busy, the value of faux-work is rather complicated at the moment:

"[W]hen business is verrry slow and the possibility of layoffs icily real, looking busy is no joke. In retail and real estate, restaurants and law offices, many workers are working hard to look necessary — even when they don’t have all that much to do."

In tough times, employers are especially paranoid about workers trying to pull the wool over your eyes, so managing your image with intricately planned mornings of busywork and smoke-and-mirrors "cyberloafing" sessions can backfire.

Interestingly, even those who aren't employed are mired in the game of looking productive. When everyone's freaking out about money and career prospects, no one wants to be seen as an idle loafer. You've probably got a friend with a novel, a restaurant proposal, a website, and a "few other projects in the pipeline." I know I do, because that person is me!

Tina Brown describes it as "The Gig Economy." In a poll run by the Daily Beast, one-third of the respondents reported that they are currently working freelance or in two or more jobs in pursuit of “'the Nut'—the sum that allows them to hang on to the apartment, the health-care policy, the baby sitter, and the school fees."

As Brown explains, "Doing three things badly is the name of the game. That’s why the Gig Economy is no picnic for the flailing employer either."

So, are the gig workers actually working harder than full-time employees? Or is everyone just pulling the wool over their boss' and/or best friends' eyes? (Related: Is this real life?)

On inauguration day, Barack Obama informed us that Americans are still the most efficient workers in the world. But looking around, you really have to wonder whose checking his facts...

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