If you were to ask people who their least favorite coworker is, chances are they’ll tell you it’s the person with the reputation of being the office slacker. Even more so than the guy who stops by your desk everyday to recite fake political memes he saw on Facebook, nothing grinds people’s gears more than the person who sits around doing nothing all day. At least your Glenn Beck-wannabe colleague manages to squeeze in some work between his deliveries of scorching hot “Obummer” takes; what the hell does the slacker do? As far as you can tell, they provide the priceless services of perusing through Twitter on their phone, constantly browsing on the internet during company time, and gossiping with anyone and everyone who passes by. And that’s just when they’re at their desk. Who knows what they’re doing when they’re away for hours at a time (Hint: Not work.)
It’s doubly infuriating when their laziness has a direct impact on you. Sometimes you’ll have to make drastic improvements to their work, if not do it for them completely. If you have the misfortune of working on a team project with them, you can count on having to pull their weight almost entirely for them. Other times it will just plain piss you off when you realize that despite the hard work you put in compared to them, the two of you are receiving the exact same pay rate.
It’s hard to believe these kind of people actually exist in the workplace and that they continue to maintain gainful employment in some capacity, but that’s the reality for a lot of companies. You might wonder how this could be possible since they don’t seem to contribute much of anything to their employer, but science has come to their rescue with a study about laziness within a group that shows they actually make contributions that can’t be measured on a performance review.
These kinds of scenarios occur throughout the animal kingdom, says Eisuke Hasegawa, a professor of agriculture at Hokkaido University in Japan. His research looked at laziness in ant colonies. At any given moment, he says, half of ants are basically doing nothing. They’re grooming, aimlessly walking around or just lying still.
“Even when observed over a long period of time, between 20 and 30 percent of ants don’t do anything that you could call work,” he says.
You’d think colonies with lots of bums would not thrive. But Hasegawa’s study, published last month in Nature, shows that colonies with a significant percentage of do-nothing types are actually more resilient. They have a reserve workforce to replace dead or tired worker ants.
“In the short term, lazy ants are inefficient, but in the long term, they are not,” he says. Eventually, as the workload increases, lazy ants will respond to a stimulus to work.
The same can be said for humans — that inefficiencies are like backup power or a spare factory line, Hasegawa says. That is, it’s a backup if lazy people, like ants, can be coaxed into working, and he acknowledges some people are just plain lazy.
First off, there’s no chance this guy actually observed any live insects for this study. All he did was pop in A Bug’s Life into his DVD player and draw his conclusions based off how Flick’s colony responded to him ruining the harvest at the beginning of the movie. Second, I want to focus on the last sentence of the above quote. He’s basically saying that lazy people might eventually respond to an increased workload unless they actually are a total deadbeat. It’s a real crapshoot there. So employers should keep their inefficient workers around because if you pile enough work on them, there’s a chance they’ll actually do it if they’re stressed enough. I’m sure companies are thrilled to hear that a portion of their payroll dollars are primarily going towards waiting for some of their employees to finally get their ass in gear.
This point is reinforced later in the article when David Allen, author of the book Getting Things Done, chimes in with this:
How people behave, he says, has little to do with their productivity. The person slacking off at work might be a genuine slacker — or might be thinking through a complex problem.
I’m going to start taking naps at my desk and using the “I’m thinking through a complex problem” line as an excuse if I ever get caught. That’s brilliant.
I guess I can understand the plausibility of this explanation for slacker behavior. For some people, the looming dread and stress of an increased workload might just be the trick for motivating them to get to work. It’s how they’re wired and it’s different from a lot of us. I still think it’s an excuse to justify lazy behavior, but who am I to question science? The lesson here, as always, is to just keep it in the middle. Leave yourself enough time to screw around at your desk while finishing enough work to keep a low profile with management. Your coworkers will appreciate your “effort.”.
Image via NPR