How to look busy at work (not as easy as you think)

My first job out of college, I was an office worker inside a movie studio near Hollywood, and as a 22-year-old who had just weeks before been a student at Indiana University, I was as excited as I could be. That said, my job was nothing particularly special or interesting. A chimpanzee could have done it -- or a chimpanzee with a driver's license, anyway. I drove to a few houses around Los Angeles, dropping off television scripts that I kept wishing I had written, but mostly, I did a lot of filing.

That is, for about a week. Then, when I had cleaned the office and organized the filing cabinet, it became clear that there wasn't a lot for me to do. I sharpened my boss's pencils and watered his plants. I washed out his coffee mug. It was 1992, and I had no computer to hide behind, and so I just wandered the office, trying to straighten things up. But everything was immaculate, and with the phone almost silent, I rarely even needed to answer the phone.

I was polishing a picture frame on the wall when my boss -- an assistant to one of the owners of the television production company, and so I was an assistant to an assistant -- came up to me and delivered the bad news: I was out of a job. Not because I was a bad employee. I simply wasn't a busy employee.
A lot of workers are facing that type of situation these days, employees who, unlike me then, have spouses and kids who are depending on them. And so I read with interest a recent London Financial Times article. It's all about trying to look busy when you aren't. And I can attest that there's something to that idea, if you want to stay employed. At the time, I made no secret that I was bored out of my mind, and looking back, I can't help but think I was an idiot. I thought that by asking for more to do, I was being smart -- showing that I wasn't lazy -- but by doing so, I was really telling my boss and her boss that they had too many people on staff.

According to the Financial Times, if you want to fake being busy, there are several things that you could be doing. Among them:
  • Stay at the office late, even if you don't need to.
  • Have a lot of paper, work magazines and folders on your desk. (On the other hand, I used to do that at a magazine I used to work at, which just led to my boss thinking I was a disorganized slob.)
  • Pretend you know confidential things and drop the names of important people into your conversation.
Stephen Viscusi, author of Bulletproof Your Job, was recently quoted in a Ohio newspaper offering these tips for faking looking busy.
  • He cited the staying at work late trick...or at least five minutes after your boss leaves.
  • He also advises letting your boss know if your spouse is seriously ill (so if the axe is going to fall, perhaps an employer will take pity on you and not fire you).
  • And he suggests getting to know your boss well. "Nobody's gonna fire someone they really know or like," said Viscusi.
And you've got to love the advice, somewhat facetious and somewhat serious, from a columnist at "Come into the office, scavenge for work, look busy and don't do anything flashy like buy a new suit or upgrade your BMW lease. And don't laugh, giggle or skip. Look somber."

I'm sure a combination of all of the above is probably the right way to go, along with some of the chestnuts that we can all figure out, like:
  • learn everyone's trade to some degree, so that you're one of the more indispensable members at work
  • do the best job you can with the work that you do have
  • stay positive and try to be constantly thinking, suggesting and implementing ideas that bring revenue into the company
That said, I think it's also important to realize that in the end, almost anyone can be fired from a job, and sometimes it has nothing to do with your performance, but those intangibles that you can't help. Maybe you make too much money. Maybe you were the last to be hired, and so you're the first to go. Maybe departments are consolidating, and your position simply isn't going to be around anymore.

But I do think there's something relevant to the idea of faking being overworked. Pretend you're busy long enough, and maybe before you know it, you'll be too busy to realize that you're no longer faking it.

Geoff Williams is a freelance journalist and the author of C.C. Pyle's Amazing Foot Race: The True Story of the 1928 Coast-to-Coast Run Across America (Rodale).

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