This is an audio transcript of the Working It podcast episode: Office slackers — the truth about doing nothing at work

David Bolchover
When I tell the story, people always found it funny. There was a mixture of people who found it funny, but sort of slightly uncomfortable sometimes, laughter because they saw their own lives reflected back.

Isabel Berwick
Meet David Bolchover, a man who spent three years as an office slacker.

David Bolchover
I actually don’t like the term office slacker because it’s a derogatory term.

Isabel Berwick
I mean, being an underworked employee, but whatever you call it, it’s a great story about a man getting paid a full-time wage while doing the bare minimum in return, and not only getting away with it, but it being the employer’s fault in the first place.

David Bolchover
I started off my career having left university, working for a quite small insurance broker, and I worked there for three or four years and I was very, very busy. I then went to work for a couple of much larger companies and I found myself doing very, very little there. Maybe an hour of work a day, a couple of hours, maybe nothing. And this went on for a period of two or three years. Because I was bored with my job, I got a place on a business management course and I approached my employer and I said, “Would you sponsor me on that course?” And they said, “Sure, we’ll do that.” So they contributed to the fees and they also paid me a little bit of a salary.

Isabel Berwick
David signed a contract with his employer that stated that in return for them sponsoring his studying, he would come back to work once he’d finished either back to his old job or to a different position that could benefit from his newly acquired expertise.

David Bolchover
And towards the end of my course, I got back in contact with my employer. They set me up with a couple of interviews with various departments. And I went in and spoke with these people, but nothing came of it. Meanwhile, I was at home and had gone back, reverted to my full pre-MBA salary, and I was at home literally doing nothing. And the weeks passed and then the months passed and they’d clearly forgotten about me. I read a lot of books, went to the cinema a lot. I travelled around Europe. I love football. I watched a huge amount football, cricket. I saw friends for lunch. I really enjoyed myself, but my family weren’t so impressed. Close friends saying, you really need to get on with things; get another job. And straight after finding this other job, by sheer coincidence my employer phoned me up to say they wanted me to come in for a meeting in which they made me redundant. So the upshot was I spent three years at this company doing basically no work. They sponsored me on an MBA course. I then sat at home for a year, getting full pay, and then they gave me a redundancy pay-off, and I got another job as well. So you could say this was the best employer ever, but really, when one looks at it in the cold light of day, it doesn’t really do anyone any good.

Isabel Berwick
During David’s fallow years, he wrote a book about his experience called The Living Dead: Switched Off, Zoned Out — The Shocking Truth About Office Life.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

And today on Working It with me, Isabel Berwick, I want to find out more about the experience of being dramatically underworked. If you’re a regular listener to this podcast, you’d be forgiven for thinking that everyone is overwhelmed and overworked. But is the world actually full of people looking artfully busy? Or perhaps they’re slipping under the radar in big organisations? And are the people around you secretly doing little to nothing, but they might be too ashamed or too content to speak up? We’ll be hearing more from David in a bit. But for now, I want to bring in Leo Lewis, the FT’s Asia business editor who’s based in Tokyo. He recently wrote a fascinating and extremely popular FT article about office slackers in Japan. Leo, welcome.

Leo Lewis
Hi there.

Isabel Berwick
Could you paint us an audio picture of what office life is like in Japan and how the so-called slackers come into that?

Leo Lewis
Yeah. So a lot of the image of Japanese workplaces is set against a kind of image that people in the outside world have — this hive of very intensive activity and long working hours and quite rigid working structures. And when you scratch the surface a little bit, it’s not exactly as the image projected would suggest. And so in these Japanese companies, where people are worked very hard and where there’s a great expectation for very long hours, there’s also a great deal of not doing terribly much. And part of that is really structural, that you’ve got people who are in many of these big Japanese companies effectively employed for life. And there comes a point in the seniority of those people’s careers where there isn’t very much for them to do. That number of sort of promotional jobs on the pyramid gets smaller, and the number of competent people to do it remains the same. And so you get these situations emerging where they’re looking for jobs for people to do when they can’t really find them, they give them jobs where they’re not doing terribly much. And the article that we wrote was based on a survey in which very slightly under half of the workers in their twenties and thirties in large Japanese companies with more than 300 employees said that they could definitely identify some in the office that was not doing anything. And by and large, those jobs were held by the older end of the employee register.

Isabel Berwick
So there’s a particular name for these people, for these office slackers that everyone in Japan knows. Can you tell us about this? Is that kind of shorthand for something?

Leo Lewis
Yeah. So it was a phrase that came up in this survey, but it was a very, very familiar phrase, hatarakanai ojisan, which is a sort of non-working old geezer, as I think the probably the kindest way of describing it. It’s not a term of sort of inherent abuse, but it does suggest very strongly the exact type of person that’s in this role. And I think that was why this survey, certainly in Japan, resonated so strongly, because it seemed so recognisable. Everyone sort of work out exactly who it was in the office. In fact, if there was any surprise for me, it was that it wasn’t a higher percentage, actually, because I think that most Japanese larger companies have got plenty of these and they’re pretty visible in not doing terribly much. Funny enough, one of the great anecdotes of Covid was that when everyone went to telework, everyone took their laptops home. The joke was that there’ll be certain old guys who forgot the charging cable but didn’t notice until Covid was over because they never actually switched their machines on. And so that was kind of the joke going round because people could imagine this particular character who didn’t do very much.

Isabel Berwick
That’s amazing. Do younger people in Japan think things will be different when they get to the age of being the old geezers doing nothing?

Leo Lewis
Yeah, I mean, 30 per cent of them did think, well, yeah, it’s possible. I could end up in that position. Because I think what’s happening is that Japanese younger employees are increasingly sceptical of any real prospect of serious workplace reform. And I think what people are looking at is thinking, well, if what I want to do as a Japanese employee is simply survive until my retirement in the same company, there is a pretty decent chance that this company, by the time I’m in my sort of late forties, perhaps fifties, isn’t going to have a job where I’m going to be working in any sort of meaningful position, although it will notionally be senior.

Isabel Berwick
That’s astonishing. So yeah, you’ve written about something that’s obviously open and talked about in Japan, but I think it’s far less so in other countries. And even so, when I talk to David, he didn’t think what had happened to him in Britain was unusual at all.

David Bolchover
This is an understated community for various reasons. People do not talk about the fact that they do very little work because it doesn’t sound good. People want to impress other people with what they do at work, and it doesn’t sound good to say I do virtually nothing. Or I could complete my working day in half an hour. There’s nothing to it. There are other aspects, of course, to this denial because there’s denial within the company. Senior managers are completely divorced from what goes on at the grassroots of the company. They have no idea and they don’t really care as long as they’re earning their money, as long as the overall results of the company are good, they’re happy. The middle managers don’t want to broadcast the fact that the people under that control are not really doing very much, and also they’re not really concerned with managing anyway, a lot of them. They’re concerned with managing upwards, impressing the people above them in the organisation. And often they’re not rewarded for how good a manager they are. They’re rewarded for their own individual contribution to sales, to marketing, whatever it is.

Isabel Berwick
So David’s got some really interesting points there about this sort of code of silence among managers. What struck you about what he was saying?

Leo Lewis
Well, one of the things that David said that really jumps out in the Japanese experiences is that business of the silence, not just from the employees themselves, but the way that it’s treated in a kind of public sphere. So Japan did have a phase in the early years of the great drought of economic growth after the 90s where companies did have to downsize and found themselves up against quite strict Japanese employment laws that made it very difficult to do that. You couldn’t claim redundancy because a lot of Japanese people don’t have an exact job description written into their employment contract. They join a company; they’re not joining for a specific job. And so what you had was people being bullied into resigning by being given jobs where they weren’t doing anything for great stretches of time. And the idea was they would eventually find the experience so overwhelming that they would eventually just leave and the company would have skirted the employment laws and got the headcount down in the way that it wanted. But some of these were very, very extreme. You know, people who had been senior managers in the company being told to go and guard the factory car park or to guard a broom cupboard or whatever it was. And I think it kept the conversation live about what it meant to work, or in this case, to not work.

Isabel Berwick
That’s really interesting, that sort of management by deliberate neglect. And Leo, did you ever find any specific statistics about how many people in Japan are being paid for doing jobs they’re barely doing? I mean, they were asking younger people and they estimated half in their companies. Does that seem about right?

Leo Lewis
Online a lot of people were saying they thought it would be much higher. And in fact, there were a lot of comments on the original piece of research when that was published that was saying, well, you know, that sounds like it’s low balling the figure. And therefore, you know, it was left the sense that actually this is probably much more widespread than it appears. But I do think that’s, one of the statistics that came out in the research was, you know, what the solution might be, which is young people saying there needs to be better mechanisms in Japan for measuring work. And I think that although I do agree with what David says about how different people perceive output and stress, I think that’s all absolutely valid, I think Japan very clearly does have an issue with not having any way of measuring the value of work beyond simply the hours that people have put in, which is why they do put in very, very long hours indeed. And I think the problem that Japan has is that there’s a big corporate resistance to making more sophisticated ways of measuring work because it would reveal how many people weren’t pulling their weight. And I think if you start saying, well, hang on, we need to start measuring work, the kind of band of people at the top of the company and then that sort of managerial position where they’ve reached through seniority suddenly go, no, no, no, no, hang on. We definitely don’t want sophisticated ways of measuring work because it’s going to show that the weight is being pulled at the lower end and that we’re sort of sitting there not doing terribly much. And so young people would love to have their work measured in a more sophisticated way. And then there is this huge resistance higher up.

Isabel Berwick
I had a look at the Reddit Anti Work Forum just to get an idea of how much of this is going on. That’s a rich seam of extreme work tales. I found some really great examples, mostly from the US, including someone saying they were paid $250,000 a year to do nothing. And like David, they hated it. And I thought their comments worth reading out. The truth is, it’s degrading to be paid a lot of money to do nothing. It’s not nearly as degrading as the other posts on this Reddit about wage theft or being asked to come in during days off. But the more I read the posts about being paid nothing and being asked to work extra, the more it makes me angry about the situation I found myself in where I was being paid to do nothing, not only of the working class propping up the fortunes of the ultra-rich, but they were also allowing their lackeys to employ white-collar workers that don’t do anything. I thought my situation was unique until I read the book Bullshit Jobs by David Graeber, and I highly encourage everyone to read that book. So this book by the late David Graeber Bullshit Jobs is often cited by people talking about underemployment, and in it he claimed the world was full of pointless jobs, and that was partly because of managerial feudalism. Managers wanting more people on their teams to make them look more important. Leo I feel like this might be something familiar to you when you report on big business. Is that something that goes on people sort of accruing people just for the sake of it?

Leo Lewis
Yeah, I’ve got two reasons for saying that certainly in the Japanese context. One is that the typical hiring patterns in Japan, they’re non-specific. And because there isn’t a great deal of liquidity in the job market in Japan, people don’t switch between companies. Companies hire very large numbers of graduates or whatever they sort of consider they need each year and hope that they will be building their long-term workforce. And so this idea of accumulating good people and keeping them when you’re not actually sure how you’re going to deploy them is kind of in the DNA of companies simply because of that hiring practice. But then switch forward to now. The Japanese population is now shrinking at the rate of one person every 50 seconds or so, and you are trying to look for the best from a genuinely and now irreversibly shrinking pool of people. And so Japanese companies are now looking to land grab as much as they can from that group of young people and retain them as far as possible, even when they don’t have specific roles for them.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Isabel Berwick
That’s really interesting. I wonder if that’s something that might start to happen more in Europe and the US as well, because there’s a huge shortage of good staff and you know what they’re calling the Talent War. I talk to David about what he thinks is the root cause of people doing nothing all day overall.

David Bolchover
The two key contributors to the Living Dead, very large companies where it’s very difficult to see what any individual is doing and also roles which are effectively immeasurable. However, what has now changed with the pandemic is the working from home, which has altered the whole dynamic. If I was in the situation, what I was in many years ago when I was working in office, doing my job in an hour a day, I would love this current situation. I would absolutely love it because I could do my work and then I could occupy myself for the rest of the day. And the other thing is now we’re seeing the explosion of the Zoom meetings. So often I’ll speak to people and they’ll say, I’m so busy at the moment, I’m back to back with meetings. Meetings are not work. In fact, the JK Galbraith quote, the economist JK Galbraith said that meetings are indispensable when you don’t want to do any work. And the explosion of meetings we’re seeing at the moment and have seen for years, and it’s even more so now when everyone’s at home, is a symptom of this problem. Look at those statistics of people who don’t want to go back to the office. There’s big stories in those statistics not being properly analysed.

Isabel Berwick
Whoa. I hadn’t actually thought about the meeting as a way of avoiding work. Are meetings big in Japan, Leo?

Leo Lewis
I think that David did write that what you’ve got is Zoom essentially jumping in to present the illusion of kind of constant occupation. I mean far pre-existed the work-from-home situation in the Japanese middle and senior managers calling meetings that had no meaning were and remain a kind of much hated part of the working day because the younger staff who really genuinely do have a great deal to do were kind of needlessly distracted by meetings that were summoned by people who didn’t have that kind of time, who were incentivised to extend those meetings for as long as possible to look as busy as possible.

Isabel Berwick
Yeah, I’m slightly nervous to question the whole idea of working from home, as he does there. There is sort of, you know, exactly filling the day in an easier way than when you’re in the office, because I think a lot of managers are quite distrustful of workers who aren’t in their sight lines. I mean, obviously in Europe and the US there’s a sort of push to return to the office. Give us an overview of what’s happening in Japan.

Leo Lewis
Japan did go to telework very, very quickly. But, you know, here we are two years later and actually it’s very, very clear that the discomfort in Japanese companies at not being able to see your staff and not being able to sort of order people around is very, very keenly felt among that exact band of managers who have the most to lose from not appearing to be doing anything and not appearing to be in control. And if they’re not there to sort of strut around the office and summon people to meetings and so on, then their life becomes that much more difficult. And I think that they’re the ones that are pushing people to come back to the office. And I’m sure that if asked the question, is there somebody in your office who looks like they’re not doing terribly much? You know, I suspect you wouldn’t find wildly different results in Germany or Italy or the UK. And I think you could probably rely on a pretty high number, actually.

Isabel Berwick
Yeah, it’s probably a whole new category of jobs, the senior managers whose job is to look at and see who’s come to the office.

Leo Lewis
I think the Japanese probably just got a nicer, simpler phrase of identifying that person. Yeah.

Isabel Berwick
Yeah. We’ll have to think of one in English. Leo, thank you so much.

Leo Lewis
My great pleasure.

Isabel Berwick
So the phrase “office slackers” is kind of funny, but actually from doing this episode, I’ve learned that it isn’t funny. You know, it’s not fun to spend your days doing nothing. And I feel sorry for people who are sort of lost in big organisations. Well, it was interesting to hear from Leo about these immeasurable jobs, you know, the kind of people who don’t have job descriptions, who are simply scooped up to work for big corporations. And it’s obviously a massive thing in Japan, but not just in Japan. We just don’t hear about it in the UK, Europe, America. You know, there seems to be something shameful about it, as David so eloquently said. So if you’re in a job where you’re underworked, have a think about it. Maybe do an MBA on the company’s time. But more importantly, you know, there’s a massive shortage of talent out there. Maybe it’s time for you to get out, see what’s out there in the market and not put up with being underworked and miserable because honestly, there’s no need for that.

Thanks again to David Bolchover and Leo Lewis for this episode. If you’re enjoying the podcast, we’d really appreciate it if you left us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts. And please do get in touch with us. We want to hear from you. And we’re at workingit@ft.com. Or with me @Isabelberwick on Twitter. If you’re an FT subscriber, you can sign up for our Working It newsletter. We’ve got behind the scenes extras from the podcast and exclusive stories you won’t see anywhere else. Sign up at FT.com/newsletters. Working It is produced by Novel for the Financial Times. Thanks to the producer Anna Sinfield, executive producer Jo Wheeler, production assistance from Amalie Sortland and mix from Chris O’Shaughnessy. From the FT we have editorial direction from Renee Kaplan and Manuela Saragosa and production support from Persis Love. Thanks for listening.

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