Tuesday, August 23, 2022

The Man Who Did No Work

Nathan Harris was 33 when he discovered he could do no work. 

Nathan, of course, did do some things. Everyone does things even if they merely breathe.

Nathan did many things more than breathe, but what he didn’t do was work. Not, at least, if you define work as “engaging in productive activities”. And none of the many things Nathan did could, in honesty, be described as productive. 

For his lack of work, Nathan took home a healthy salary for a man with no major expenses. Far healthier than earned from jobs he took in the naivety of youth at which he did, in fact, do actual work.

It was a discovery born of many mis-spent hours in the organisational services departments of various minor government agencies and large corporations. Both feature obtuse bureaucracies in which a man who does not wish to work can happily ply his trade.

It goes broadly like this. The first thing any department or “team”, depending on the language preferred, needs is a work plan. Nothing ensures that nothing productive ever happens quicker than starting a work plan.

For one, you can’t develop a work plan without a meeting. You can’t plan the work unless you bring the team together. Meetings were gold to Nathan and meetings to develop work plans were the shining jewel in his golden crown.

The best thing about these meetings is there’s never just one. The first meeting is filled with misunderstandings and confusions over the point of the meeting, the content of the work plan, the definition of work plans themselves and even, in the best cases, the very nature of the work they are supposed to carry out in the first place. 

So, having run over time, a new meeting will be scheduled.

This process can continue for a surprisingly long time, and Nathan found he didn’t have to do any work to ensure it happened. It happened naturally.

Eventually the natural cycle of meetings to develop a work plan runs its course, but thankfully that doesn’t end the matter. Soon there’s new meetings to discuss the progress of the work plan and the cycle begins anew.

Nathan’s next trick was to ensure he was only assigned non-productive tasks in any work plan. He never found a shortage.

For example, Nathan always volunteered to re-organise online filing systems. He drafted many proposals for new file-naming protocols involving shifting to, or from, the US date system of MM/DD/YYYY. These proposals always led to meetings.

Occasionally assigned a task that seemed dangerously useful, Nathan quickly discovered that introducing the smallest errors can bring large scale operations to a halt.

Asked to create an online form, Nathan would ensure one box was a little smaller than needed to function. Nothing so noticeable it would be picked up by those assigned to double check before green-lighting the form, but wrong enough to bring down the entire system the form was intended to serve. 

And entire systems crashing down always leads to meetings.

Or, if working in accounts, Nathan learned to raise an invoice with an error in the company name or address so minor only someone very specifically paid to notice would ever see it. 

Those paid to notice were, of course, his counterparts in accounts at the company being invoiced. And by the time they see the invoice, a whole bunch of meetings will have happened at both ends just to get to the point that an invoice could be issued. All so accounts can bring the process to a shuddering halt over a spelling error.

This isn't even the fault of accounts. They have specially designed computer programs to automate the process that will not work if the specific data provided is wrong. A whole host of people spent many hours not working to create these programs.

Emails will then ping back and forth to get the problem fixed. Ideally, meetings are held. Yet the issue will remain unresolved, because the different specially designed computer programs to automate the process that Nathan used were always incapable of formatting the invoice in the specific way required by his counterparts. 

The back-and-forth might never end. In his nine months in accounts at one job, Nathan failed to either successfully issue or pay a single invoice until the start-up finally went broke.

Nathan uncovered endless tasks to avoid work, but few are better than those involving task management software. These software programs seem like glorified to-do-lists but they take up much more time. In between entering all the tasks to do, giving them deadlines, filling in the detail, assigning the tasks where required, answering the querying comments and scheduling meetings to clarify the querying comments, many a week flew by. 

In fact, Nathan once held a job where he couldn’t have done actual work if he tried. The job was a content systems specialist at a company producing task management software that sold themselves as helping increase productivity. That start-up folded too.

Now as much as Nathan may have wished, you can’t actually hold meetings for every minute of every work hour. That’s where emails come in.

In breaks between meetings, Nathan always checked his emails. He even set it as a task in the task management software titled “check emails”. 

Emails were another gold mine. They frequently come from other sections of the organisation and would include a stream of tasks involving changing email signatures or filling in questionnaires for some organisational issue that would be filed in the wrong place in the badly organised online filing system and never seen again. 

When Nathan ran out of emails to read, he’d write his own. He liked to make these as vague and confusing as possible so recipients have no choice but to respond. This gave him even more emails to read and more to write in response. With a bit of luck, the ensuing confusion might even lead to a meeting.

Nathan found entire years could be filled this way. Of course, he knew there were those better off than him. He still had to show up at a set time for a set period of hours each day to take home an adequate salary. It was a long way from that entire class of people who did nothing yet were worth so much that the very concept of money as a means to any end was incomprehensible. The world was simply there to take as their birthright. 

No, Nathan was not one of the 1% of non-workers, not even the top 50%. Yet Nathan was happy. Because if nothing he did mattered then nothing was at stake. 

Feeling no pressure helped Nathan do his job extremely well. Frequently, he was Employee of the Month and rose up the chain of organisations until the roles offered looked dangerously like they involved responsibility for something actually productive. At which point, searching through job ads for the many positions requiring no work, he’d move on.

Nathan wondered if he could spend the rest of his work life doing no work. He couldn’t see why not.

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