Bolchover, David. The Living Dead. Chichester, England: Capstone Publishing, 2005. ISBN 1-84112-656-X.
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 (type “bored 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 worthwhile.

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 “Lieutenant Columbo” 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.

January 2006 Permalink