Can automation end our obsession with busywork?

People often obsess about being busy. We want to look busy. We don’t want to be seen as idle by colleagues. (Or even to think of ourselves as being idle.)

This cultural obsession with busyness is a problem. It hurts workplace morale. And all too often, it creates a false sense of productivity by putting a disproportionate emphasis on ‘busywork’.

But how can we change it? Some suggest automation software – with its ability to handle routine tasks – could end undue focus on the repetitive admin that keeps us so (unrewardingly) busy.

So, can automation help end our obsession with busywork?

What is busywork?

“Busywork” is a name for low (or even no) value tasks. Tasks that could easily enough be automated. Tasks that are peripheral at best, unnecessary at worst.

In other words, busywork is typically work with the only real purpose of making the worker completing it look busy.

For example:

  • Writing an unnecessary report
  • Spending hours on email or folder management
  • Automatable manual data entry
  • Pointless or overly long meetings
  • Colour coding files or spreadsheets
  • And so on

These tasks don’t add value to the business, they don’t further a goal, and they don’t help with personal growth.

Busywork is generated from both the top and bottom of a business. For example, it’s often assigned by managers wanting to get their money’s worth from employee salaries. But it’s also undertaken by employees under their own volition. This voluntary busywork is usually due to either a sense of guilt over having nothing to do, or a worry of being seen as ‘slacking’. (Even if primary or core tasks are complete.)

Why obsess over busywork?

So, if these tasks aren’t providing value, why do we ‘obsess’ over them?

The obsession with busywork arises from the stigma of being idle. It’s viewed badly when an employee isn’t doing anything on paid time — even if the reason is that there’s no work for them to do.

Our busywork obsession is all about the perception of team members. Are they worth their wage? Are they lazy, or hard-working? Busywork makes people seem important to a business — they’re always doing something. And this ‘do-er’ image becomes valued, blurring busyness with the productive work and results that an employee has delivered.

In short, being busy is equated with being productive, even though this is a flawed mentality.

Employees completing busywork, meanwhile, are often conditioned to feel guilt. Finishing your contracted work and being idle feels like being paid but not doing anything. (Despite there being nothing left to do.) Additionally, an employee may not want to appear redundant by being idle — providing another reason to self-assign busywork.

Why should the busywork obsession end?

It’s understandable to wonder if wanting to stay busy is such a bad thing? Why should it matter if we want to look busy when we don’t have anything to do?

Unfortunately, busywork presents a false sense of productivity. Employees look busy but aren’t accomplishing anything. This translates to wasted money and effort.

In fact, busywork actively damages productivity in two ways:

  • By motivating workers to ‘drag feet’ and complete valuable tasks slower. (If they don’t finish this valuable task, they won’t have to do boring busywork.)
  • Wasting physical and mental energy on ‘nothing’ tasks instead of using it on productive ones.

Busywork also hurts morale. In fact, according to one study, 71%  of employees say that too much busywork made them feel as though their lives were being wasted.

In turn, this creates a stressful workplace atmosphere. The office fills with discontented employees who feel punished for achieving their high-value goals. Given time, these employees will bounce and search for a more fulfilling work opportunity.

Finally, the ‘busy is best’ mindset leads to burnout. It stigmatises well-earned breaks, for instance, which results in more sick days and mental health issues.

What automation can do to end the obsession

The attitude towards busywork, then, is a problem. But what exactly can automation do? It can’t directly change our mindsets, or undo the conditioning that makes us feel guilty for having a break.

But what automation can do is help us do that for ourselves — by taking away the busywork.

Automation software loves small tasks that don’t demand much thought or creativity. Tasks like data entry, email parsing, file admin, and any and all repetitive workflows that follow a set process.

Because busywork is all idle tasks, automation can take these on too. By setting it to take on these unproductive tasks (alongside the helpful admin and workflow steps tasks it can do too), there are no pointless tasks to do or assign to workers.

This means that when a team member finishes their core work and finds themselves idle, they cannot fill their time with busywork. (Whether asked to or not.)

But what would idle team members do instead?

With automation handling the tasks that typically fall under the ‘busywork’ category, idle employees will need to find or be assigned other, productive things to do.

This includes taking a well-earned break.

Breaks, contrary to what the obsession with busywork suggests, actually help to improve productivity. They give employees mini-deadlines to work towards. They also give the brain a chance to rest and reset, which aids in helping employees be creative and think outside of the box. Breaks also help brains retain new information. And they improve morale to boot.

Beyond breaks, employees can use their extra paid time to:

  • Complete deep work and other high-value tasks
  • Mentor others
  • Train and learn to further their career and abilities to help the business

The results of removing the obsession with busywork and replacing it with value-added work are numerous. There’s less chance of burnout, higher employee satisfaction, higher true productivity, a better workplace culture, and more respect for hard-working employees.

Can automation end our obsession with busywork?

Automation isn’t going to immediately change the way we perceive working life. ‘Looking busy’ is likely to stay as a factor associated with being a good worker.

But automation is going to change the tasks that need doing. It can and will take away traditional ‘busywork’. And without any busywork to obsess over, the need to look busy will lead to pursuing more high-value work.

Over time, then, as busywork disappears, the value placed on busyness will dissipate. In its place will be a focus on quality work.

In short, it will take time to change mindsets and habits, but automation software can end our obsession with busywork.

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