Saturday, January 23, 2021

Beware of the cunning minimalist among you

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Never have so many of them been so worried about losing their jobs and feeling so reluctant to do so.

This thought came to my mind last week as the New Year was rocked by worry. new strains of Covid, a new round of lockdowns and further job cuts.

Right behind came another idea: there has never been a better time to study the ways of the cunning minimalist.

He is a kind of worker, common to all offices, who instinctively knows how to avoid the tedious and invisible work that makes co-workers’ lives easier but receives little attention or credit.

Instead, they focus on high profile stuff. The boss’s animal project. A job that stands out, inside and preferably outside too, because doing so makes it more marketable and therefore invincible.

I wish I could say I came up with the term cunning minimalism that describes this little virtuous circle of cunning so well, but I didn’t.

I heard it the other day from a desperate friend who was trying to figure out how she and her husband could juggle another wave of home schooling and childcare on top of their demanding jobs.

“We’ve always believed that if you work hard you’ll get ahead, so that’s what we’ve always done,” she said. “But it’s killing us now, so I decided we need to be cunning minimalists and be more strategic about what we do or don’t do to get out of this.”

She was joking, mostly, but not entirely. The problem was that she, like me, was so averse to shying away that she had never managed to become a successful minimalist, cunning or otherwise, despite years of close observation.

The first time I noticed a master in action, I was working in an Australian newsroom which, like many other places, had a rotation for weekend shifts. Everyone was there except a middle-aged journalist. His absence meant that everyone had to do a little more work.

“How come he doesn’t have to work on Sundays?” I once asked a manager. The manager’s face darkened as he explained that the man refused to work on weekends and that no one, including the editor, was inclined to do so.

It did no harm to the man. He then slipped from job to job into a career that has shone with awards, success and book offerings.

How did he do it? In the same way that I have watched countless others do it in all the places I have worked since. He was grumpy and slightly intimidating, so managers didn’t like asking him to do something if a nicer, nicer person could do it instead.

He was also an expert at saying no, a skill often lacking in the nicest people, and able to stay on the side of the chief and the chief’s most powerful lieutenants.

Above all, he was rarely in the office, which meant he avoided being asked to do things in the first place.

Covid-19 has upset this strategy in two distinct ways. First, hiding outside the office may be less of a foolproof ploy if everyone is working from home and managers feel the need to take a closer look at who is doing what.

More importantly, entrusting extra work to colleagues has gone from vaguely unpleasant to potentially dangerous.

Before the pandemic took hold, chronic work stress had become such a widespread problem that the World Health Organization officially listed burnout as a professional phenomenon in 2019.

The same year, almost 30% of American workers reported feeling exhausted at work “very often” or “always”. Once Covid hits, another survey found 41 percent of American workers who were successful in keeping their jobs felt their work was exhausting them.

In other words, the cunning minimalist has become an increasingly risky management problem. The resentment they evoke was already strong enough in the good times, but in a time when so many workers face so much hardship and stress, it’s intolerable.

More than ever, businesses need as generous and collegial staff as possible. Letting minimalists roam free is not only unfair and unreasonable, it also encourages the rest of us to think about joining their ranks in order to survive.

pilita.clark@ft.com

Twitter: @pilitaclark



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