Is Digital Bureaucracy Making Us Less Productive?

Bureaucracy is the death of all sound work.

Albert Einstein.

Some context for this post: I’ve been doing some thinking recently about why people keep saying they are ‘too busy’.

Is busyness an indicator of having too much work to do, or a sign of a lack of empowerment?

Or is it a sign of working within an overly bureaucratic system?

Back in 2015 Aoife McLoughlin from James Cook University‘s Singapore campus published an interesting hypothesis. What if our very use of technology makes time appear to go faster? She found that those who were almost always online overestimated the amount of time that had passed compared to those who rarely used technology. A person sitting playing with their phone in a waiting room would estimate that an hour passed in just 50 minutes. And it wasn’t just those who used technology often – McLoughlin found that even people who read an advertisement for the latest iPad perceived time as passing more quickly than those who had read an excerpt from a novel. 

“It’s almost as though we’re trying to emulate the technology and be speedier and more efficient,” McLoughlin told ScienceAlert. “It seems like there’s something about technology itself that primes us to increase that pacemaker inside of us that measures the passing of time.”

Whilst feeling busy and the pace of life picking up is nothing new, we have more technology available to us than ever before – and whether you are home based or a field worker, your work life is a constant series of reminders and prompts – a smorgasbord of digital nagging to keep telling you some work is outstanding. Hurry up.

It’s my contention that we have created a new digital bureaucracy – where everyone can invade our most precious commodity: time.

Parkinson’s Law 1 – “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”.

Parkinson’s Law, named after historian C. Northcote Parkinson, states that work creates more work, gradually expanding to the point of filling the time available for its completion. Parkinson believed that bureaucracies always grow. Managers wish to appear busy, so they increase their workload by creating rules or things to be filled in. Then they hire more subordinates, who in turn require more managerial time for supervision.

The theory has been developed in recent years by the likes of Gary Hamel and Michele Zahini who posit some useful indicators of bureaucracy:

  • In a bureaucracy, your power and compensation are the product of head count and budget.
  • No one ever downsizes their empire voluntarily.
  • Every new challenge begets a new CxO or head office unit. These soon become permanent fixtures.
  • As the organization grows, more layers get added, and the ratio of managers to frontline team members creeps upward.
  • With every crisis, authority moves to the centre, and stays there.

And as bureaucracy grows stronger, those who might resist it grow weaker

The new digital bureaucracy

It’s now easier that ever to delegate a piece of work or a task for someone to do. The growth of RPA, and the introduction of robotic managers could make our work lives heaven or hell – with freshly designed e-learning for us all to complete each morning.

Writing in Diginomica, Chris Middleton points out that in the name of efficiency the UK Government has created 21,000 jobs across 46 departments in support of its digital, data, and AI ambitions – and run up large consultancy fees in the process.

As he says ‘is all this frenetic activity and internal job creation better for citizens? The signs aren’t necessarily good. After creating a colossal bureaucracy, the government has also sought to shift the onus back onto citizens and businesses in some cases.’

And there you have it. Far from digital being our saviour it could unleash a whole new series of tasks for us to do.

As Gerry McGovern has said – this is the problem with digital. We make it easy. We make is cheap or free. Production and consumption explode.

There is a solution here but ending the busyness cycle may not be something workers can do on their own. Ending digital bureaucracy means designing out the interruptions and the prompts, it means taking more personal responsibility instead of endlessly delegating it to others.

It means remembering that digital is an enabler rather than our manager.


Image licensed from Alfredo Martirena

Don’t Let Busyness Kill Your Creativity


Last week I was getting a drink when a colleague asked me “So, you busy as usual?”

I took a second to avoid my kneejerk affirmative response and went for it:

“No – we’ve decided to slow down. Give ourselves some time to really think about things”.

They looked at me like I’d lost my mind.

In the world of work, more and more of us have bought about the prominence of an unusual status symbol: seeming busy.

But we are busier than we used to be, right?

No – we are not. In fact we are working less than we did 20 years ago – whatever it might feel like to you or I.

We are undoubtedly working in a new reality, one where we now have the distractions of machines to add to those of people. Being busy as a status symbol though is a modern phenomenon.

Thorstein Veblen suggested in 1899 that living a leisurely life and not working (the “conspicuous abstention from labour”) was the most powerful way to signal your status.

However a study earlier this year challenges whether that represents our modern reality. It explored cultural differences, finding that busyness at work is associated with high status among Americans, with the effect being reversed for Italians, who still view a leisurely life as representative of high status.

I recommend listening to the Oliver Burkeman shows that explore the way we fetishise being busy. You’ll recognise the stories of people complaining about the size of their inbox and all the meetings they have to go to.

It’s easy to say you’re too busy. Even when you’re the one to blame for it.

As example I’ve kept up a pretty good blogging schedule this year — usually every week or so. I’ve had a gap for the past two weeks —  and I could blame being been too busy.

But just like eating the right food, reading more books and exercising – busyness is often just an excuse for lack of discipline. 

I like not being busy and I’m proud of it.

I resist being busy at every opportunity.

Busyness for me — and telling people I’m busy — is a sign I’m being undisciplined and unproductive.

Worse still — busyness makes you lose self-awareness. Telling other people how busy and important you are means you start to believe it yourself.

Here’s what makes me busy:

Trying to multi-task (there’s no evidence that our brains work well with too many tabs open)

Attending standing meetings (they just create actions rather than focus on being reductive)

Letting people schedule back to back appointments (which kills any time for you to breathe and think)

Sending lots of emails (you just get more mails back)

Letting people “pick your brain for 5 minutes” (It’s never ever five minutes)

Although we don’t like to admit it – we have a lot of control over our own busyness and the busyness of others.

Someone recently told me that they checked their colleagues diaries to “see how busy they were”.

The implication was clear — busyness was being directly equated with productivity.

The colleagues whose diaries were full , a sign that they say yes to everything, were lauded.

Those engaged in purposeful contemplation or those just getting stuff done were not.

In the space of 50 years the workplace has become overwhelmed with management theories on how to run a better organisation.  It can’t be a coincidence that the growth of busyness has come at a time during which there has been a growth in management.

Not for nothing does the world’s most valuable brand eschew management fads and concentrate on getting the basics right. All staff at Google have to learn how to run meetings, have conversations, and set goals.

Great companies only obsess over productivity – never busyness.

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