Welcome to the era of (f)unemployment

By Morf Morford, Tacoma Daily Index

In more ways than could be counted, we are in an economy like no other. Among the gyrations of employment numbers, interest rates and ever-shifting corporate and government policies, we a have a new term to add to our business vocabulary – “funemployment”.

Like almost everything else in the current economy, what “funemployment” is, how we got to it, and how it is sustained, even encouraged, is a bit complicated. “Funemployment” is, at its essence, the state of being employed but barely working.

There are a variety of reasons contributing to how people at work wind up with little, if anything, productive or work-related to do. It could be that the project they were hired for is no longer a priority, or the tasks they were in charge of, by and large, are now being handled by technology.

Perhaps they never should have been hired in the first place, or they were brought on board too soon, before the company or project was fully in motion. Or, in some cases, perhaps they’re super fast at their jobs, or they’re really good at being secretly lazy, hiding in plain sight.

Whatever the cause, the situation seems to be common. Even in the face of cut-backs and massive lay-offs, these positions exist – or even flourish.

For better or worse, an established track or position is part of a larger process that employs that person, and preserves their job, is an artifact of the way the process was designed, the way the budget was set, and a multitude of assumptions about how the process works, as opposed to how it actually works.

The un-sqeaky wheel doesn’t get the grease

In a typical inversion of what was once a truism, our economy has become one where some workers become semi-invisible when it comes to their own work obligations. The shift to remote work makes it easier to get away with not doing much because there’s no one looking over your shoulder/cubicle to see what’s happening.

I know one remote worker for example, who insists that he can get his eight-hour set of obligations finished up in about two hours. Don’t tell your boss, but that’s what I hear from almost everyone. And that’s my experience as well.

In most work situations, when a clear task is presented, I have no problem getting it done promptly and before required. But in most cases I was obligated to be available for a set number of hours.

A simple, and perhaps obvious question emerges; are we hired and employed to accomplish a specified set of tasks, or are we hired to be essentially “on-call” for a set agreed-upon number of hours any given day or week?

Another way to look at it might be, is work literal “labor” or is it bringing a set of skills to the marketplace by someone ready and prepared to bring their skill-set to the workplace?

To put it mildly, this a situation rife with contradictions; on one hand, if the work is getting done, why is there a problem? From another perspective, what company, or even individual, does not want to be more productive? And, perhaps most salient of all, who is going to complain about such a situation? Or take responsibility for it?

Oddly enough, those who are familiar with the Peter Principle know that promoting the incompetent has been an embedded tradition in virtually every institution, agency and business for a long time.

From churches to branches of the military, and in old sayings like “good enough for government work”, incompetence or even outright avoidance has been a presence in the workplace ever since workplaces have existed.

As always, it is the company’s responsibility, the leader’s responsibility and duty, to manage their workforce and know who’s doing what and where and how appropriate the measurable output might be.

Working hard or hardly working

In yet another revision of what was once a familiar comment/joke, the phrase “Working hard or hardly working” captures the essence of the 21st Century workplace.

Some of us are overwhelmed and almost consumed by our work, while others seem to slide by, minimally working and yet accruing raises, recognition and promotions despite being barely-there but officially present.

As is often the case, there seem to be two competing paradigms at work in our culture right now – one is that there’s no such thing as bad publicity – any recognition is better than no recognition and, second, sometimes operating completely under the radar with as little recognition as possible is the best career strategy.