A Year Without Work

Early in my career I took a job in a department that was supposed to be delivering a major new product for one of our business partners. It seemed like a great opportunity. What happened next was that the deal was delayed and the delayed again. But we were already in training and so the organisation decided to leave us in this new area until we were needed. So after training was completed I was earning the most money I ever had (low bar at that point, we aren’t talking Jeff Bezos money) but had no work to do.

Technically there was some work to do, but I am an early riser and a quick worker which meant that most days I had finished my allotted work by the time I was actually supposed to start work. Leaving me a whole day of… Well, what?

It turned out pretty quickly that the team of 8 were part of something that should have been monitored and evaluated as part of a social experiment. We all reacted in different ways.

  • One person (low level of drive…) simply kicked back and relaxed so much they could often be found asleep at their desk with earphones in. Other teams complained and he didn’t care
  • Another took to professional gambling through their phone
  • Several of us started Fantasy sport leagues with multiple teams and competed against each other there. Or played the stock markets with imaginary money
  • One person was so bored they would get everyone else cups of tea or do favours for them… if the other team members would leave extra work for them. Yes, they actually worked for work to avoid having no work
  • I read everything that I could on the area of expertise so that subsequent training courses became a bit redundant because I’d put in such intense study that nothing was new to me
  • Tempers would flare and people would shout at each other – not because of the pressure of work but because of the lack of it
  • Other colleagues in the business hated us for the lack of work and we hated them for having work

I guess it taught me very early that for some getting out of work is bliss. Yet after a short period of excitement for most people there was a hunger to do something that had a value or was valued. We wanted to be productive. We weren’t saving lives, but whatever we did was going to be better than things we knew had no worth.

So whenever someone tells me that someone is lazy I’m tempted to suggest that you give that person no work for a year. There’s nothing more strangely useful in helping us see the perverse value we place on it. It’s also worth remembering that you can place 8 people in an identical situation and get 8 completely different reactions. We are curious beasts.

One thought on “A Year Without Work

  1. I had a similar experience where the company I was working for was subject to a prolonged takeover process (which took around 15 months). It meant that all business development, HR and other change projects just stopped. Because I lived close by, I ended up going to work at normal start time, sticking around for half an hour and then going home if there was nothing doing. Another senior manager (who had an hour more commute) would ring in first thing and then, if not required, would go hill walking or mountain climbing. As you say, it sounds ideal, being paid to do nothing, but actually was the most boring time of my working life


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