LifestyleThe Rise of Performative Work

The Rise of Performative Work


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It’s not what you do. It’s how ostentatiously you do it

IN AN EPISODE of “Seinfeld”, a vintage TV sitcom, the character of George Costanza reveals the secret of pretending to work: act irritated. He shakes his head, frowns and sighs to demonstrate the technique. “When you look annoyed all the time, people think that you’re busy.” In comments posted below this clip on YouTube, visitors report with delight that the tactic really does work and offer a few tips of their own: walk around the office carrying manila envelopes, advises one.

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Before the pandemic turned everyone into remote employees, managers worried that working from home would be a paradise for slackers like George. People would be out of sight and out of mind: starting late, clocking off early and doing nothing in between. The reality of remote working has turned out to be different. Days have become longer and employees are demonstratively visible. Work has become more performative.

The simple act of logging on is now public. Green dots by your name on messaging channels are the virtual equivalents of jackets left on chairs and monitors turned on. Calendars are now frequently shared: empty ones look lazy; full ones appear virtuous.

Communication is more likely to happen on open messaging channels, where everyone can see who is contributing and who is not. Emails can be performative, too—scheduled for the early morning or the weekend, or the early morning on the weekend, to convey Stakhanovite effort. Repeated noises like Slack’s knock-brush provide a soundtrack of busyness.

Meetings, the office’s answer to the theatre, have proliferated. They are harder to avoid now that invitations must be responded to and diaries are public. Even if you don’t say anything, cameras make meetings into a miming performance: an attentive expression and occasional nodding now count as a form of work. The chat function is a new way to project yourself. Satya Nadella, the boss of Microsoft, says that comments in chat help him to meet colleagues he would not otherwise hear from. Maybe so, but that is an irresistible incentive to pose questions that do not need answering and offer observations that are not worth making.

Shared documents and messaging channels are also playgrounds of performativity. Colleagues can leave public comments in documents, and in the process notify their authors that something approximating work has been done. They can start new channels and invite anyone in; when no one uses them, they can archive them again and appear efficient. By assigning tasks to people or tagging them in a conversation, they can cast long shadows of faux-industriousness. It is telling that one recent research study found that members of high-performing teams are more likely to speak to each other on the phone, the very opposite of public communication.

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Performative celebration is another hallmark of the pandemic. Once one person has reacted to a message with a clapping emoji, others are likely to join in until a virtual ovation is under way. At least emojis are fun. The arrival of a round-robin email announcing a promotion is as welcome as a rifle shot in an avalanche zone. Someone responds with congratulations, and then another recipient adds their own well wishes. As more people pile in, pressure builds on the non-responders to reply as well. Within minutes colleagues are telling someone they have never met in person how richly they deserve their new job.

Theatre has always been an important part of the workplace. Open communication is a prerequisite of successful remote working. But the prevalence of performative work is bad news—not just for the George Costanzas of the world, who can no longer truly tune out, but also for employees who have to catch up on actual tasks once the show is over. By extension it is also bad for productivity. Why, then, does it persist?

One answer lies in the natural desire of employees to demonstrate how hard they are working, like bowerbirds with a keyboard. Another lies in managers’ need to see what everyone is up to. And a third is hinted at in recent research, from academics at two French business schools, which found that white-collar professionals are drawn to a level of “optimal busyness”, which neither overwhelms them nor leaves them with much time to think. Rushing from meeting to meeting, triaging emails and hitting a succession of small deadlines can deliver a buzz, even if nothing much is actually being achieved. The performance is what counts.

Read more from Bartleby, our columnist on management and work:

A memo from the boss on apology inflation (Jan 1st)

The Beatles and the art of teamwork (Dec 18th)

The shortcuts to Theranos (Dec 11th)

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This article appeared in the Business section of the print edition under the headline “Office theatrics”

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  1. Y.T.’s mom pulls up the new memo, checks the time, and starts reading it. The estimated reading time is 15.62 minutes. Later, when Marietta does her end-of-day statistical roundup, sitting in her private office at 9:00 P.M., she will see the name of each employee and next to it, the amount of time spent reading this memo, and her reaction, based on the time spent, will go something like this:

    Less than 10 mm. Time for an employee conference and possible attitude counseling.

    10-14 min. Keep an eye on this employee; may be developing slipshod attitude.

    14-15.61 mm. Employee is an efficient worker, may sometimes miss important details.

    Exactly 15.62 mm. Smartass. Needs attitude counseling.

    15.63-16 mm. Asswipe. Not to be trusted.

    16-18 mm. Employee is a methodical worker, may sometimes get hung up on minor details.

    More than 18 mm. Check the security videotape, see just what this employee was up to (e.g., possible unauthorized restroom break).

    – Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash


    tl;dr: people are "performing the doing of work" by making sure they look like they're active on slack and paying attention in zoominars. The "theater" of work is a thing that's become celebrated.

    My take: I think I've met plenty of people who've pretended to work, especially back when I did some work with government contractors. Even minor requests would take days to weeks to even get a reply. So I don't think this is anything new; we've just adapted to new ways to pretend to work.

    But: as someone running a bootstrapped startup, there's more actual "doing" now than there ever was. Gone are the "networking opportunities" where you go out for real meetings. It's all zoominars now, which means there's more time to get stuff done (or more likely, get burnt out, then tricking myself I'm being productive)

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