How to Identify and Reduce Fake WorkBlog / July 25, 2023 / with Christoph Drebes
Is “Fake Work” a problem for your company?
Study after study shows that knowledge workers are spending less time on their core job. But you shouldn't immediately assume there's an epidemic of procrastination. Instead, examine what takes up the rest of their time.
Once you know more about Fake Work, you’ll be able to identify it in your workplace and can reduce its impact.
What is fake work?
The term "fake work" refers to tasks we do that feel like productivity but don’t make a difference to an organization. For example, writing a report that nobody will read is fake work. So is attending a meeting where nobody makes decisions.
The term comes from a book published in 2009 by Brent D. Peterson and Gaylan W. Nielson. The book's premise is that people don’t realize how much of the work they are doing doesn’t have an impact on results. It also highlights another cause; managers don’t realize they're assigning fake work to their employees.
We can define "fake work" as the opposite of "real work", which drives a business towards its strategic goals. But fake work doesn’t mean that an employee isn’t working hard! Instead, workers might be giving their all to their workday, but fake work means that the result isn’t impactful.
Why is fake work a problem?
Fake work is a problem that impacts different levels of an organization.
It's problematic for businesses
For organizations, fake work causes the following problems:
- Projects take more time to complete because unnecessary tasks keep distracting workers. This can also cost an organization money.
- Multiple unstructured requests for information can lead to duplicate work being done by multiple departments, wasting time and money.
- Due to individual productivity falling, organizations may need more people to produce the same results. This creates a large drain on resources.
- Departments may focus on their own micro-goals rather than adapting to the needs of the business as a whole.
Fake work causes problems for managers
Managers may also struggle to be productive in an environment that promotes fake work:
- They may spend a larger amount of time in meetings, leaving them with little time to be productive.
- They may feel pressured to micromanage their direct reports. This includes requiring them to report daily or weekly on their progress. Managers then need to spend excessive amounts of time reviewing the reports.
- Managers working for organizations that over-value fake work may reward the wrong employees. For example, they might promote employees who are good at presenting fake work rather than those that make a big impact on the company’s goals.
It creates problems for employees
At the bottom of the pyramid, fake work can really eat up time for employees. However, that’s not the only issue it causes.
- Fake work can demotivate workers, as it isn’t clear how their day-to-day work impacts the wider business.
- It can make it hard for employees to focus. Instead, they face regular interruptions for meetings and unstructured requests for information.
- Fake work can reduce the appetite for innovation or experimentation. For example, when managers train employees to think about personal goals rather than the organization’s strategy.
- Workers may make poor decisions because they lose sight of the big picture. This is particularly true if managers treat fake work as more important than the business’s long-term goals.
How to recognize fake work
In their book, Peterson and Nielson list several common signs that your work is fake work.
These different examples focus on five main areas:
- Connecting strategy, work, and results. You don’t know the strategies of your company and can’t connect the company’s goals to your daily work. You can’t measure or define how important your work is to the company’s results. If you can measure your output, your work isn’t having a significant impact on the company’s results.
- Meetings that waste your time and other people’s time. You hold or attend meetings (onsite or offsite) that don’t have a clear purpose or expected outcome. You invite people to these meetings whose opinions you don’t need and who don’t have to do anything in these meetings except listen. You often find yourself attending meetings about projects that you don’t have a direct role in.
- Providing information for the sake of it. You often work on or circulate reports or figures which nobody reads. You send emails with several people in cc, even though only one or two people need the information.
- Projects that fail due to lack of relevance. You work on proposals that receive praise but aren't implemented because they have a limited impact on the company’s goals. You start projects that take up a lot of time and resources, but they don't gain support because others don’t see the relevance.
- Failure to stick to changes. You’ve gathered data to show how your organization needs to change and held strategy meetings to agree on a new path, but the status quo continues. Everyone understands that the current path won’t lead to success, but the existing workplace culture is too inflexible to change.
How to reduce fake work
Fake work is often the result of a company culture that values productivity but does not understand it. It is compounded by workers and managers who are unable to call out fake work. They also don't feel they can decline tasks, even if they recognize them as distractions from real work.
There are four stages that a business should consider in order to reduce fake work.
Many employees don't know how to recognize fake work. Instead, they view it as an essential part of their role. That might be because their manager has assigned it, and they aren’t used to questioning authority. It could also be because they’ve experienced it at every company they’ve worked at. As a result, you might find that your first task is education: raising awareness of fake work.
The previous section described how you can recognize fake work. You should share the examples above with employees during internal training. The key message is that employees should always understand how their tasks contribute to company goals.
The other piece of that puzzle is to make sure all employees understand the company's strategy and goals. Managers may need to be more transparent and specific about the challenges the business is facing. Without this information, employees will find it more difficult to tell if their work aligns with the company’s needs.
If a company is serious about reducing fake work, they need to develop a culture that values feedback. Management doesn't just need to hear feedback; they also need to use it to drive change.
Too often, companies ignore employees who report that their work feels meaningless. They are often told to resolve the problem themselves. Or managers take the feedback further up the corporate ladder, where it is filed away and forgotten.
Here are some steps that an organization can take to ensure that its culture allows employees to call out fake work:
- Create a safe space to call out fake work. Ensure that employees have regular contact with their managers so that they can question their tasks' relevance. It is important that managers don’t take employee feedback as personal criticism. Instead, it should be a productive exercise that improves the whole department’s performance.
- Managers should help with prioritization. When an employee struggles to order their tasks by their importance to the business, managers should be able to step in and help. If an item is constantly placed at the bottom of a list of priorities, consider whether it is necessary. If a manager or department head struggles to prioritize their own team’s tasks, then they may need to clarify the business goals to which their team contributes.
- Hold departmental and interdepartmental sessions to identify fake work. Fake work is often caused by miscommunication between different hierarchy levels and departments. Regularly assessing tasks, meetings, or reports with a broad group can reveal who needs the outputs for productive work.
- Senior staff should also be ready to field questions about fake work. Communication between hierarchy levels can be difficult. If a superior requests a piece of work, then it’s often very difficult for those of lower rank to question them. Everyone, including the C-Suite, should be prepared to receive feedback about the work they assign and how it aligns with business goals.
TIP: Not all interdepartmental communication has to be formal. You can build an open corporate culture in a fun and flexible way using a tool like Mystery Coffee.
Once you’ve identified fake work and raised it with your colleagues, the next step is to cut it from your day. Here are some tips:
- Decline meetings. If a meeting request doesn’t come with a clear agenda, refuse to attend without knowing the goals in advance. If you have regular meetings in your diary, reconsider the frequency. How often are your one-to-ones useful? Can you reduce the frequency or allocate less time?
- Let unnecessary reports go. Employees lose a huge amount of time compiling different combinations of figures. Decide what is essential, what is useful, and what is excessive documentation. If your systems aren't going to delete data, you can always come back and compile a report later once you know what you’ll use it for. Even if you’re receiving automated reports, consider whether the time taken to read them is useful.
- Set deadlines and let projects die. Try not to lose space for experimentation and innovation when reducing fake work. That said, you should define the targets for time-consuming projects at the outset. It’s also helpful to set deadlines for key milestones. Rather than buying into the sunk-cost fallacy, it’s important to know when to abandon an experiment rather than continue for the sake of it.
- For managers: focus on removing hurdles, not adding work. Managers should help their teams to complete projects efficiently. They should not be adding unnecessary red tape. Instead, they should be an employee’s first supporter when it comes to streamlining and prioritizing their tasks.
4. Regular review
Reducing the percentage of fake work in your day isn’t a one-time exercise. Despite best intentions, fake work tends to creep back in over time.
In addition to questioning the relevance of new tasks and meetings, it’s helpful to schedule an annual audit of your tasks. Spring cleaning your list of regular tasks and meetings can help you to identify things that don’t contribute to productivity or actively hinder it. Maybe something was useful, but no longer is.
Getting as close to zero as possible
It’s impossible to eliminate all fake work. There are some bureaucratic things that will always be with us. They might not contribute to the company’s major goals, but they have other benefits.
For example, a form that feels like fake work to the sales team might be essential for quick invoicing in the accounts department. Quick and accurate invoices keep customers happy, so the sales team receives fewer complaints and doesn’t lose customers.
But teams don’t know each other’s processes inside out. That’s why it’s valuable to challenge requests – to understand whether something is essential or a nice-to-have. By reducing fake work to its lowest level, you save more time for productive work, deep focus, and innovative projects that make a real difference.
About the author:
Christoph is an entrepreneur from Munich and co-founded Mystery Minds in 2016. Mystery Minds' mission is to make the world of work more human by creating meaningful, personal connections between colleagues. The remote-only team already works with over 250 international companies, helping them to strengthen internal networks and overcome silo mentalities.
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