There’s an old saying that when two soothsayers pass each other in the street they smile knowingly. Well it’s not just soothsayers.

We have our own modern-day equivalent and you probably know a few of them. What you’re about to learn may shock you, but hopefully will lead to greater tolerance and understanding of this 21th century phenomenon.

Office workers don’t always readily identify themselves, and if they do, it will be in code, using terminology the average person will be too afraid to question. A job title so magnificent you will wonder how the world has not literally torn itself apart because they’ve taken time off to talk to you.

Of course, there’s only one word they should use to describe the job they do and that’s sinecure. And if that’s a new word to you, please look it up – it’s a wonderful adjective for what I’m about to talk about.

And, if you’re one of the indispensable office workers we’re referring to, please be incredibly offended – everyone knows you need another first-world problem to put right from the comfort of your swivel chair, punching out the words into Reddit or Twitter with the righteous indignation of Don Quixote jousting windmills.

The funny thing is you might think I’m making this up for comedic purposes, and while I admit I might take some creative liberties here and there, this is a real thing, and I should know – it was my life for way too long.

So you might think: “This cannot be true. How is it possible for thousands of working people to be doing practically nothing? Wouldn’t the economy collapse? How can we afford to pay people to do nothing? Do we even need office workers?” I’ll try to answer some of these questions later but for now let’s take a look at how this started and a typical day for a non-working office worker.

Tell me about the origin of the lazy office worker

Everything has a start, and we didn’t always have NOWs (in typical lazy office worker fashion I’ve come up with a helpful acronym). It wasn’t their fault (you will find this sort of convenient ‘passing responsibility’ a recurring theme with NOWs) – it was the town planners who hadn’t got round to building offices. Blame also rests with the computer engineers who hadn’t built the computers and computer networks that NOWs like to hide behind. It seems everyone was too busy working out in the fields feeding their families to accommodate the needs of whining office workers.

Eventually, office blocks and computers came into existence and allowed NOWs to stir from whatever organic soup they’d be having an intense meeting in, throwing shade at the town planners and computer engineers for not working ‘more efficiently’ and missing their unreasonable deadlines. But there was still a problem. While NOWs had everything they needed to start “work”, there was no coffee and they agreed among themselves that it would be inhumane to force anyone to work under coffee-less conditions.

This created a pause in the evolutionary progression of NOWs, who regressed back to their natural state of inactivity, waiting for the moment when the planets aligned and conditions would be perfect for them to enter the workforce.

How the office worker evolution ended no one’s really sure. The write-up job got outsourced to an agency, someone paid a whole lot of money and someone else was managing the job, it got sent back a few times and after that no one ever heard anything more.

A typical day for the office worker

The first thing you have to know about NOWs is that there’s no such thing as a typical working day, not like regular workers who have actual work to get done. So, when you don’t have work to get done, your “work” day adapts to how you’re feeling at the time. Had a hard night on the turps? Use your ‘glide time’ card and come in at 10. Overwhelmed by the pointlessness of your job? Take a mental health day and stay in bed. Bad hair? Work from home.

You quickly start to see the work day adapts to the office worker, and when you learn there’s no work being done it makes sense really. So if you have a mate who’s one you’ll understand why they can ‘drop tools’ and hit the beach when the surf’s up.

But if there’s no pressing or prior engagements in the personal life of an office worker they may spend the entire day actually in the office. It might go something like this…

7.50am – Turn up early. This is a classic trick, creating the impression you’re hard working and eager but of course you won’t even think about doing any actual work for at least another hour or two.
7.51am – Head to the coffee machine. You’ll probably spend a lot of your time here. In fact, a lot of ex-office workers are in rehab overcoming a caffeine addiction.
7.55am – Sort out some breakfast. Why use your own milk when you can get the boss to pay for it?
8.10am – Casual chats with friends at the office about their weekend. Technically, you can categorise this as work. I mean it’s operation-critical team bonding and potentially project-related information gathering. Also known as networking.
10.55am – Coffee anyone?
11.11am – Someone’s back from Spain and brought back some authentic Tres Leches (don’t ask how it survived the flight) and that calls for another coffee.
11.59am – Is it lunchtime yet?
12pm – Yep
1.07pm – A friend just called. Yeh, I know you hate second lunches but you can’t let your friend down, especially when there’s no work to be done.
1.53pm – I better open my emails. Oh wait, everybody check that wild weather going on outside!! Man I feel bad for those road workers out there, this winter weather sucks!
3.07pm – Mandatory coffee break. Hey, I’m legally entitled to it.
3.48pm – Seems like someone in the office is celebrating a birthday, or a baby, or the birthday of a baby – whatever it doesn’t matter – it means free cake, and cake means coffee.
5.01pm – A minute after home time, what are you still doing here?? You crazy hard worker you! Those emails can wait until tomorrow.

Heck yes it sounds like a full day but trust me, it’s doable and there are perks. I did it for years and before you get all jealous about the day-to-day ease I’m putting down here, there is a dark side.

The dark side of office life

From what you’ve read so far, you might think office workers are all about coffee, cake and flexi-time. But the easy life has a dark side.

It’s a general rule of thumb in life that you can actually have too much of a good thing. With excessive amounts of free time, free access to excessive caffeine and a variety of sugar-laden office snacks (the Achilles heel of bored workers watching their waistline) the office is fraught with hidden, and not-so-hidden, dangers.

Getting fat – Yep, it happens, and standing desks and stretching won’t save you from the calorific threat that is all around you. I worked in an office where you got free lunches; they were basically killing us with kindness. Of course, with all that flexi-time we should have been joggling laps around the block and frequenting the gym, but that was honestly too much like real work so that wasn’t going to happen. You just sit back and pile on those pounds until they wheel you out in a body bag (if they can find one big enough).

Aimlessness – Not having any work to do (and getting paid for it) might seem like what all kids dream of doing when they grow up but the reality is that doing that for too long turns you into a zombie with no sense of purpose or direction in life. You basically drag yourself from corridor to corridor in search of your next caffeine (or sugar) hit. There are better ways to waste your life.

Back-stabbing politics – Now that you have an enclosed space full of overfed office zombies conditions are ripe for mind games and office politics as idle gossipers plot to trample over one another in a vain attempt to reach the top (you never actually reach the top because there’s always someone else ready to foist their chubby toes in your squishy midsection to gain some extra height on that corporate ladder). To be fair, what else are you going to do if you’re not actually working?

Sick building syndrome – I know you think I’m making this stuff up but this is for real. The place the zombies call home is actually turning on them and making them sick. Artificial light, recirculating stale air, germ-laden door handles and the filthiest of them all (second only to motel room tv remotes) the ubiquitous keyboard – it making them all sick. Fortunately, they have plenty of sick leave to use up, so swings and roundabouts I guess.

Self-actualization issues – You might be familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It makes sense but it also means that when all your basic needs are met (money, food, caffeine, office fob card…) you find yourself at the pointy end of the pyramid. While someone struggling to make ends meet might want to literally slap someone for suggesting it’s tough at the top, it’s actually tough at the top. Combine that with the idle time office workers have and you’ve got yourself a lifetime of therapy right there.

Meaningless tasks – The flip side of not having actual work is that you need to substitute it with something. This leads to putting staff through nonsensical tasks for no reason other than to follow procedure, tick some boxes and complete a few forms. Meetings that don’t go anywhere and don’t require anything of attendees (other than they MUST attend), reworking reworked work (that will be reworked in a few weeks) and spend six months working on projects that were never intended to come to anything.* Employees subject to this sort of ridiculousness and who subsequently spend time thinking about the pointlessness of it all will be prone to bouts of wishing their way-too-easy existence and meaningless job be vaporised in a flaming fireball, to end this bizarre charade.

*This stuff actually happens

So don’t be too hard on your lazy office worker mates – they face a lot of on-the-job stresses that are hard to describe and even harder to understand for anyone who’s never done time in an office. Is the solution to put an end to office work and set the gerbils free, free to start over and enjoy the satisfaction of real work?

What’s the future of office work?

It might seem ludicrous that we could have a high percentage of the workforce not contributing something material to society. How can companies afford to pay millions of dollars for workers that don’t move the revenue needle? Is it a front for money laundering? Or part of a much larger government conspiracy to create the illusion of a working economy? Or to prevent widespread panic, vagrancy and aimless street wandering by members of the bourgeoisie?

The point is with globalisation, the online movement and scientific development (ok mostly just access to cheap labour markets) a lot of first world countries really don’t have to work all that much. Sure Tim Ferris made it seem revolutionary that a 4-hour work week was possible but the reality is it’s easy and doable for a lot of people.

The sticking point is that most people’s greed for consumption is turned up to 11, and they just couldn’t cope with earning less. Or know what to do with all that free time.

One of the greatest movies of all time, Flight of the Phoenix (the remake, not the original), put it well when, as they were all about to die in the Gobi desert, someone says if you can’t give a man something to hope for, at least give him something to do. Or maybe for the benefit of office workers, we can amend that to: give him something to pretend to do.

So until we can find some way to keep the hordes of NOWs occupied, let’s not rock the boat – who knows what might happen if we open that Pandora’s box. Just keep them happy with their climate-controlled hen houses, pumped full of sugary treats and caffeine, and the illusion of normal life is maintained.

Maybe they serve a useful purpose after all.

Office workers powering the invisible economy