The email survey from The Human Resources Department seemed innocuous enough when it lobbed in a friend’s inbox the other day.
(And yes, people who work in The Human Resources Department use capital letters because they need to let you know they are an extremely important part of the business).
The survey, which on the surface appeared to be the usual time-wasting missive Human Resource Departments love to devise, contained a list of questions asking employees how they were faring during the coronavirus pandemic.
Were they anxious? Missing the office? Finding communication with fellow employees difficult?
And then came the clincher. Did they think they were more productive working from home than in the office?
My friend immediately smelled a rat.
She works for a finance company where profits and revenue have been shrinking for years.
The survey was just another way of finding more costs to cut.
The math is simple. For a company panicked by a declining bottom line, getting more people to work from home can lead to significant cost savings.
Fewer desks means less space to rent. Fewer office workers means less support staff are required.
Or, as Human Resource Managers would say, it is an “opportunity to leverage our human assets by empowering valued employees to drill down and focus on core competencies at external sites”.
So is it possible that some good might come out of this era of social distancing and overwhelming job disruption?
Could it mean a revolution in the workplace where thousands of workers can get on with their roles at home without all the distractions of an office?
And could that mean that many of those useless corporate roles like HR managers and external consultants might suddenly become redundant?
Both occupations fall easily into that wonderfully accurate term of “bullsh-t jobs”.
The phrase, originally coined by David Graeber, a professor of anthropology at the London School of Economics, refers to a wide range of mainly white-collar occupations that, if they disappeared overnight, would have little or no effect on everyday life.
Graeber defines a “bullsh-t job” as a “form of paid employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence…”
He claims there are millions of these roles being carried out across the world – from administrators, consultants and corporate lawyers to service personnel, clerical workers and telemarketers.
If you have a meaningful and productive job, and have been fortunate enough to work from home over these past couple of months, then you will already appreciate how productive not working in an office can be.
You get things done in half the time.
There are no endless meetings filling your diary devised by office “Box Tickers” – those who believe going from one meeting to another constitutes real work.
Goodbye to all those meaningless conversations and small talk that consume so much time and energy.
No more distracting office gossip about who is bonking whom.
Adios to all the brown-nosers who make sure they are always sitting in the line of sight of the boss and who endlessly spout ideas they have stolen from their more imaginative – and less needy – colleagues.
And a fond farewell to all those Human Resource departments and their beloved brethren – external management consultants – who have swelled their corporate ranks in recent decades to the point where they now resemble those “fatbergs” clogging up the sewers of many of the world’s largest cities.
Consultants – the modern version of snake oil salesmen – are often used by companies as a way to tell the market they are devoted to cost cutting and looking for new ways of doing business.
But just like the infestation of corporate jargon in recent years, consultants rarely make any meaningful or last contribution to a business.
Part of the mystique they cloak themselves in has to do with their magical role of “outsiders” – only they can glimpse the structural problems of a company and offer solutions.
But first they must often spend months “immersed” in the business – or what you and I might call trying to understand a company they know nothing about, and being paid handsomely for it.
In the end they produce forests of flow charts, recommendations for new organisational structures and hundreds of thousands of words of useless drivel that shed little light on the problem, let alone have any lasting outcome other than swelling the consultancy’s bank account.
One of the few beneficiaries of the consultancy industry has been in human resources.
More complex structures require more managers – and more people to oversee them.
It has been an endless self-fulfilling cycle where these two so-called professions feed off one another.
But in the new world we are slowly approaching, simplicity is likely to be one of the most important targets for any business adjusting to post-pandemic life.
The coronavirus has been the most disruptive economic and social event since World War II.
Millions of workers have lost their jobs and livelihoods.
It’s time we balanced the ledger.
If jobs have to go, surely the most meaningless should be first in line.
Garry Linnell was director of News and Current Affairs for the Nine network in the mid-2000s. He has also been editorial director for Fairfax and is a former editor of The Daily Telegraph and The Bulletin magazine