Parkinson’s law explains why work is so boring

It was a cloudy Monday morning in October when I received another “urgent” email request to provide PowerPoint slides, this time for an important VP visit. I took another swig of coffee and looked ahead at my chores for the day. There were many mind-numbing tasks I was putting off but the 3 screaming loadest on that bleak Monday morning were:

  1. Health and safety training. I’d now received my 5th and final reminder for mandatory health and safety training in the workplace. I wasn’t sure what would happen if I ignored this automated email again, maybe I’d be deemed unsafe to enter the office.

    It’s a pointless exercise, everyone plays the training videos muted in the background and blags the online test at the end. I’m sent so many of these mandatory courses to complete, it’s ridiculous. Is the work environment any safer because of this bureaucracy? Short answer: no. It’s box-ticking for businesses, the bigger the business the more boxes that need ticking.
  2. Provide updates. Monday means it’s “update day”. This means compiling a list of projects being worked on with results and progress updates. These email lists are then sent up the chain of command. We all know that no one reads them so we just copy and paste the previous week’s list and alter a few words and the sequence.
  3. Meeting preparation. I needed to prepare for a bunch of meetings and by “prepare”, I mean make a load of stuff up. Not only are all these meetings completely pointless, no one listens. Waffling meeting nonsense is a skill and I find doing a little prep beforehand makes all the difference.

After reviewing my task list, I sat back on my shared hot desk and pondered the pointless nature of modern-day office work. I work in a department that’s supposed to drive sales for a large multinational corporation, however, if truth be known, it doesn’t.

The work I do serves no purpose other than fill time. Sales would be unaffected if the entire floor I worked on stopped turning up. And there’s nothing especially unique about the unproductiveness of the floor I’m on, I estimate the removal of 80% of the global workforce (~100K+) wouldn’t make a difference. The remaining 20% (which might be generous) are designing the products, making deals, writing code, maintaining servers and the like. They’re the ones doing the real work, the rest of us are pretending.

What is Parkinson’s Law?

The meaningless and boring working environment that I and millions of others around the world are apart of, is what Parkinson’s Law explains. Parkinson’s Law is often used to explain the growth of bureaucracy in an organisation. In summary, Parkinson’s Law states: “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”.

Parkinson published his law in a satirical article in the Economist in 1955, he notes that the number of people employed in a bureaucracy rose by 5–7% per year irrespective of any variation in the amount of work (if any) to be done.

“work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”

Cyril Northcote Parkinson

Therefore: if you have 5 minutes or 1 hour to complete a task then the task will expand or contract to fill the allotted time. Only last week I had a meeting that normally ran for an hour but only had 10 minutes. Did this restrict productivity or decision making? No, instead everyone got to the point versus discussing their weekends and rambling on about nonsense.

Obviously, this only applies to the world of offices and administration, if you have a “real job” then time becomes less elastic. A wall will always take x amount of time (give or take) to build. In addition to work being elastic, there were 2 other components to Parkinson’s Law:

  1. An official wants to multiply subordinates
  2. Officials make work for each other

These further points from Parkinson’s Law translate to: managers want to grow their teams and managers will create work for their teams and others. None of this sounds controversial, but how did Parkinson come up with the law?

Evidence supporting Parkinson’s Law

Parkinson’s most notably study was done on the British Navy at the time of the British Empire. This study centred around the number of administrators (officers and clerks) in relation to the strength of the Navy (warships and crew) between 1914 and 1928 (when the British Empire was in decline). Despite fewer colonies under British rule and with the Navy in decline, the number of admin staff and officials was bucking the trend and actually increasing.

YearWarshipsNavy crewOfficials and admin staff
% change-68%-51%+55%

Despite the Navy diminishing by two-thirds, office workers increased by 55%. Parkinson’s analysis painted a clear picture that administration (let’s just call it office work) is not related to real work or output.

Boring work is soul-destroying

Parkinson’s Law tells us that office work doesn’t correlate with production, that work becomes elastic to fill time and that departments are built around egos and politics.

Unless you’re one of the lucky ones, there’s a good chance you’ll realise the work you do is partially or completely pointless at some point in your career. Unfortunately, many of the better-paying jobs in today’s society are also some of the most pointless.

But pointless work is also soul-destroying and it’s why I work towards financial independence, with financial shackles removed I can work on mentally rewarding projects irrespective of financial gain. Thanks for reading, if you have any comments or questions then please leave them below.

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7 thoughts on “Parkinson’s law explains why work is so boring

  1. Yeah, this stuff is super frustrating. I’m glad I work for a small company where everyone needs to contribute to get everything done.

    One observation is that when organizations shrink, their efficiency doesn’t increase as one would expect, unless management makes some wise decisions. Where as a meeting will become more efficient with less time, overall workforce management practices won’t naturally adopt to the new constraints.

    I saw this when I worked for a bigger newspaper company (a bigger, but shrinking company in terms of labor). Despite the obvious need for less distraction and more focus on the core product, our time was still constantly wasted and it never seemed to occur to management to change their time-wasting and non-productive practices to adapt to the new conditions. One day I couldn’t keep quiet when we were having a third meeting about the company’s social media policy. I didn’t think we needed a meeting at all, when we could have been given the policy in an email we could fit into our day; but it was now the third time going over the exact same stuff for no reason. I was a happy man the day I submitted my resignation.

    1. Yes, many people in the office struggle deciphering what should be an email, call or f2f meeting. Invariably it ends up as a meeting!  

  2. Great article again Richard, thank you for writing it.

    I thought I’d share another Law which has some relevance to this subject, Prices’ Law. Nicely outlined by Jordan Peterson in the video below:

    I wonder if we’ll see a significant step towards automating these roles within organisation that seem to grow more inefficient with time, any thoughts on this?

    1. Hi Andrew, thanks for posting the link, I’d never heard of Price’s Law before — on the surface is sounds similar to the Pareto principle. Maybe, depending on the organisation, one applies better than the other
      I like the late David Graeber’s view, the super-efficiency of capitalism is a myth — but it’s a feature, we need to create pointless jobs to keep the wheels turning. If AI replaces all the pointless jobs then who’s going to buy the latest iPhone?

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