Wednesday, November 12, 2014


There was an excellent little column a few weeks back in The Economist on what it terms “one of the world’s most popular, if unrecognised, sciences: skiving.”

“Skiving” not a word that’s recognisable recognizable to you?

Well, it’s Brit for shirking, slacking off, or (my personal favorite, as it was a word that my father used) goldbricking.

The first principle of goldbricking cited is:

…the ancient jacket-on-the-back-of-the-chair trick: leave a coat permanently on display so that a casual observer—a CEO practising “managing by walking around”, for example—will assume that you are the first to or arrive and the last to leave. (Source: The Economist)

While this may be an hoary practice, I was unfamiliar with it until I worked at Wang.

Two guys in my group, one with a cubicle adjacent to mine, the other kitty-corner, would arrive at work bright and early, drape their suit coats over their chair backs, and head down to the cafeteria, where they would have breakfast, chat a bit, and read the newspaper.

Wang was a matrix organization, and we were all product managers. So we could be anywhere in the Wang Towers: meeting with our techies, with QA, with tech writing, with marketing, with sales, with the release engineers.

Our boss would drift by a couple of times a week and asked if I’d seen either “Don” or “Ken”, and I’d just noncommittally respond that “they were around somewhere.”

Let him figure out for himself that somewhere was the Wang caf.

At least it was the Wang caf before lunch.

After lunch, “Don” and “Ken” would generally head to the gym for a workout, cagily leaving their jackets in place.

This duo’s goldbricking ways eventually caught up with them, and they were both let go in one of the clockwork lay-offs that Wang held.

My Wang days were pre-Internet.

Oh, we had computers, and email (internal), but the time wasting opportunities that the ‘net provides – and the ability to pretend to be working while “doing your shopping, booking a holiday or otherwise frolicking in the cyber-waves” were in the future.

What might “Don” and “Ken” have done if they could have stayed in their cubes while slacking off, rather than having to drag themselves down to the Wang caf?

Why, surely, they would have mastered the:

… high-tech version of the jacket trick: program your e-mails to send themselves at half past midnight or 5.30am to give your managers the impression that you are a Stakhanovite.*

Well, I’ve never programmed an e-mail to send itself after hours, but I have on occasion gotten up to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, woken the laptop up, and fired off a 2 a.m. email or two (unleashing my inner Stakhanovite).

The downside of having a technology gateway to creating a Potemkin Village illusion – just wanted to get a Russian allusion of my own in there – of being on the job 24/7 is that, these days, your company may actually be monitoring your Internet search activity, reading your emails, checking your IMs, and even keeping track of your keystrokes.

The third principle [of goldbricking] is that you should always try to get a job where there is no clear relation between input and output.

It’s noted that while this may be most readily accomplished in the public sector, it’s not unknown in the private sector, however vaunted it is for efficiency and wringing the fat out.

In “The Living Dead” (2005), his memoir of life as an office worker, David Bolchover says that the amount of work he had to do was inversely related to the size of the company that he worked for. He started his career in a small firm where he had to work hard for no title and low pay. He ended working for a big company where he had a grand title and a fat pay packet but did almost nothing. Mr Bolchover was not a member of the brotherhood: he asked his bosses for more work and, when they failed to oblige, filled his idle hours by writing a management book.

Hey, I could have written that book. Why didn’t I? Oh, yeah…

The final goldbricking principle is to be ambitious: get promoted so you can get your minions to do all the work.

Having been a manager, I will note that managing can be both exceedingly demanding in general and an enormous pain in the arse in particular. It would probably drive you crazy if you didn’t manage to keep a bit of real work on your schedule.

Personally, I was never much of a goldbricker, although I guess you could call all those lofty bull-sessions with colleagues, where we gabbled about what we could do to save the product, the division, the company, the world could count as goldbricking. In some cases, we were not above getting meeting room and bringing in pads and pens so that no one could question our work purpose.

Mostly, if I was at work, I actually wanted to get something done.

But because I admittedly did plenty of bull-shitting – most but not all work-related – I always ended up working longer hours.

Which I guess is consistent with all the blather about folks working such long hours these days not being quite as true as it might seem:

…as Roland Paulsen, of Sweden’s Lund University, explains in “Empty Labour”, an example-packed new book, innumerable studies suggest that the average worker devotes between one-and-a-half and three hours a day to loafing.

And with that, even though there’s no one here to see it, I think I’ll drape my jacket over the back of my chair and goldbrick off into the sunset.


*And, yes, I had to look it up. It’s defined here, but I’ll give you the short bit:

…the Stakhanovite movement was…a propaganda tool of the Soviet Union that started during the first Five-Year Plan that gave recognition to the "little people" who over-fulfilled quotas or did an excellent job on their [work] site, or something of that nature. It was named after Aleksei Grigorievich Stakhanov, who broke the Soviet Union's record for coal extraction in a single day.

1 comment:

Free Advice said...

Interesting concept.