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Before You Judge Lazy Workers, Consider They Might Serve A Purpose

Oivind Hovland
Getty Images/Ikon Images

Most people have a colleague or two who don't seem to do much work at work. They're in the break room watching March Madness, or they disappear for a two-hour coffee break.

For Allison Lamb, that person is her cubicle mate. Lamb is a statistical clerk for a company in Fishers, Ind., who says she likes her job and has a good work ethic. So it irritates her to see her cubicle mate ignoring her duties, disappearing with her friends and keeping her nose in her cellphone all day talking, texting and gaming.

It seems to Lamb that her colleague flaunts her do-nothing attitude.

"Sometimes people walk by, and she's just sitting there laid back, looking at her phone," Lamb says. "So I don't think she's trying too hard to look like she's working."

She complained to her boss, and to her friends on Instagram and Twitter. But the behavior hasn't changed, and the neglected work often falls to Lamb.

"I've proven that I can do a lot. So I feel like if I slacked off, it would be noticed," she says.

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.

Pat Dolan, a retired teacher and artist in Bellefonte, Pa., says she learned a lesson about laziness decades ago, in high school, while working on the assembly line of a book-binding company.

"For me it was boring," she says, of gathering and sorting the pages, "so I tried to make it a challenge: How many pages can I collect and how many books can I collect in an hour?"

In the short term, lazy ants are inefficient, but in the long term, they are not.

The zealous Dolan whizzed around, until the forelady asked her to watch and learn from her slower colleagues.

"I was 15, so I was pretty judgmental and thought, well, that lady's really slow, she's just a poke," Dolan says. "But, you know, she was really good at a different aspect of the job."

Dolan says she has adopted a slower pace. She says modern culture values more, faster — but that isn't necessarily better.

"The point is deeper thought, and you have to slow down for that," she says.

The last place I expected to hear a defense of laziness was from David Allen. For decades, his book Getting Things Done has been a best-selling productivity manual. Allen champions a system where people get their to-do lists out of their heads as a way of focusing and being efficient.

"The reason I discovered this is that I'm probably the laziest guy you've ever met," he says.

Allen says many people confuse frantic energy with effectiveness. He argues that some people are more effective on more sleep.

"I sleep as long as I can. I used to kind of make that a joke, but it's actually the truth. And then I discovered that cognitive scientists are saying, 'That's gonna make you smarter.' "

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. Sometimes being effective means getting perspective, he says: "There's no way to manage the forest when you're hugging the trees that tight."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Yuki Noguchi is a correspondent on the Science Desk based out of NPR's headquarters in Washington, D.C. She started covering consumer health in the midst of the pandemic, reporting on everything from vaccination and racial inequities in access to health, to cancer care, obesity and mental health.
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