- Bolchover, David.
The Living Dead.
Chichester, England: Capstone Publishing, 2005.
If you've ever worked in a large office,
you may have occasionally found yourself musing, “Sure,
I work hard enough, but what do all those
other people do all day?” In this book, David
Bolchover, whose personal work experience in two large
U.K. insurance companies caused him to ask this question,
investigates and comes to the conclusion, “Not very
much”. Quoting statistics such as the fact that 70% of
Internet pornography site accesses are during the 9 to 5 work day, and
that fully one third of mid-week visitors at a large U.K.
theme park are employees who called in sick at work, the
author discovers that it is remarkably easy to hold down
a white collar job in many large organisations while doing
essentially no productive work at all—simply showing up
every day and collecting paychecks. While the Internet has
greatly expanded the scope of goofing off on the job
at work” into Google and you'll get in excess
of sixteen million hits), it is in addition to traditional
alternatives to work and, often, easier to measure. The author
estimates that as many as 20% of the employees in large offices
contribute essentially nothing to their employer's
business—these are the “living dead” of the title.
Not only are the employers of these people getting nothing for their
salaries, even more tragically, the living dead themselves are wasting
their entire working careers and a huge portion of their lives in
numbing boredom devoid of the satisfaction of doing something
In large office environments, there is often so little
direct visibility of productivity that somebody who either
cannot do the work or simply prefers not to can fall into
the cracks for an extended period of time—perhaps
until retirement. The present office work environment can be
thought of as a holdover from the factory jobs of the
industrial revolution, but while it is immediately apparent
if a machine operator or production line worker does
nothing, this may not be evident for office work. (One of
the reasons outsourcing may work well for companies is that
it forces them to quantify the value of the contracted
work, and the outsourcing companies are motivated to better
measure the productivity of their staff since they represent
a profit centre, as opposed to a cost centre for the
company which outsources.)
Back during my blessedly brief career in the management of an
organisation which grew beyond the experience base of
those who founded it, I found that the only way I could
get a sense for what was actually going on in the
company, as opposed to what one heard in meetings and read
in memoranda, was what I called
management—walking around with a little notepad,
sitting down with people all over the company, and asking
them to explain what they really did—not what their
job title said or what their department was supposed to
accomplish, but how they actually spent the working day,
which was often quite different from what you might have
guessed. Another enlightening experience for senior management
is to spend a day jacked in to the company switchboard, listening
(only) to a sample of the calls coming in from the outside world.
I guarantee that anybody who does this for a full working day will end
up with pages of notes about things they had no idea were going on.
(The same goes for product developers, who should regularly eavesdrop
on customer support calls.) But as organisations become huge, the
distance between management and where the work is actually done
becomes so great that expedients like this cannot bridge the gap:
hence the legions of living dead.
The insights in this book extend to why so many business books (some
seeming like they were generated by the PowerPoint Content Wizard) are
awful and what that says about the CEOs who read them, why mumbo-jumbo
like “going forward, we need to grow the buy-in for leveraging
our core competencies” passes for wisdom in the business world
(while somebody who said something like that at the dinner table
would, and should, invite a hail of cutlery and vegetables), and why
so many middle managers (the indispensable NCOs of the corporate army)
are so hideously bad.
I fear the author may be too sanguine about the prospects of devolving
the office into a world of home-working contractors, all
entrepreneurial and self-motivated. I wish that world could
come into being, and I sincerely hope it does, but one worries that
the inner-directed people who prosper in such an environment are the
ones who are already productive even in the stultifying environment of
today's office. Perhaps a “middle way” such as Jack Stack's
Great Game of Business
(September 2004), combined with the devolving of corporate monoliths
into clusters of smaller organisations as suggested in this book
may point the way to dezombifying the workplace.
If you follow this list, you know how few “business books”
I read—as this book so eloquently explains, most are hideous.
This is one which will open your eyes and make you think.