AS LAWS GO, the dictum devised by C. Northcote Parkinson, a naval historian, was admirably succinct: “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” His essay, first published in The Economist in 1955, has stood the test of time, in the sense that people still refer to “Parkinson’s law”. But the experience of working life during the pandemic [necessitates] three corollaries to the theorem.
When it comes to office work, the incentives to dawdle are pretty clear. Finish an assignment quickly, and the employee will just be given another. That second task may be even more unpleasant than the first. Workers may end up like a hamster on a treadmill, stuck in an endless cycle of needless effort.
Office workers know, however, that the mission itself is not the only thing. It is important to be seen to be working. This leads to “presenteeism”—being at your desk for long enough to impress the boss (and even turning up while sick). In the pre-internet era this would involve endless redrafting of memos, long phone calls, or staring meaningfully at documents. Thanks to the pioneering work of Tim Berners-Lee, presenteeism now requires less effort: many hours can be wasted on the world wide web.
When working at home, the boss is out of sight but not out of mind. Broadly speaking, the result is to divide workers into two factions. The first group, the slackers, has spent the lockdown working out the minimum level of effort they can get away with. They have no need to drag out each task; they do what is required and spend the rest of the day at leisure, submitting the work just before deadline. For this group, Parkinson’s law can be amended as follows: “For the unconcerned, when unobserved, work shrinks to fill the time required.”
The second group takes the opposite approach. Consumed by guilt, anxiety about their job security or ambition, they work even harder than before. Being at home, they find no clear demarcation between work time and leisure time. They require their own amendment: “For anxious home workers, work expands to fill all their waking hours.”
Like their staff, managers also want to appear useful. In the office, they can seem busy by walking around and talking to their teams. At home, this is more difficult; a phone call is more intrusive than a casual chat. The answer is to organise more Zoom meetings. Hence the third amendment to his law: “In lockdown, Zoom expands to fill all of the manager’s available time.”
Adapted from Parkinson’s Law Updated, from the Bartleby column in The Economist, July 11, 2020 edition. © The Economist Group Limited, London 2020.