It has made pop culture icons out of TV shows like The Office, movies like Office Space and comic strips like Dilbert.
In the real world, however, "fake work" is not such a laughing matter.
Unless you can see the humour in the fact that, if you're like many people, you spend your workday attending meaningless meetings, completing pointless paperwork, writing reports that no one will read, and sorting through an endless stream of irrelevant emails.
At least half of what most people do each day is a waste of time and resources, according to one veteran business consultant.
Fake work -- "effort under the illusion of value" -- is work that does nothing to advance a company's goals and instead drains it of both dollars and morale, says Brent Peterson, co-author of Fake Work: Why People Are Working Harder Than Ever but Accomplishing Less, and How to Fix the Problem.
"It's happening everywhere," says Peterson, who travels the world to help businesses get real. He and co-author Gaylan W. Nielson run The Work Itself Group, a Salt Lake City-based consulting, facilitation and teaching company.
After conducting surveys of more than 100,000 employees from 300 American organizations, they found that not only is the modern workplace "saturated" in fake work, 87 per cent of workers are regularly unsatisfied with the fruits of their labour, and more than half think the work they do doesn't count at all.
And it's happening across the organizational chart.
"Fake work reaches out to include everyone from the inattentive CEO who changes strategy too frequently, to the social-climbing manager who creates busywork to make herself look important, to the shirking line worker who just doesn't want to do anything today," the authors write in the book.
"Fake work is done by diligent, hard-working people and by people who try to avoid real work at all costs and end up passing the fake buck to others."
When Peterson speaks at conferences (he gave a keynote at the 2012 QNET Excellence Conference in Winnipeg on May 3), he often uses a Scandinavian TV coffee ad to illustrate the fake-work concept. The ad shows an executive coming out of his apartment in the morning to go to work, but when he arrives at his car, he finds it covered in snow and ice. So he begins clearing away the icy covering, even using his briefcase and credit card as tools. Finally, the car is clean, so he hits the button on his keychain. Lights come on and doors unlock -- on an identical car parked in the space in front of the one he just cleaned.
What his and Nielson's research showed, Peterson says during a phone interview, is that there are a lot of people out there like the "Ice Man." They work hard, they have a sense of purpose and they get things done -- but the wrong things.
"The first thing we found was that most people in most organizations -- up to 80 per cent -- do not know the strategy of their company. They just show up and do what they're asked to do," he says.
"The second thing we found is that the things they were doing were absolutely not related in any way, shape or form to the strategy."
Peterson cites an example at a Chicago university where, after his keynote address, the president came up to him and admitted that university administrators at 25 locations around the campus were required to submit a weekly report that took an average of four hours per week each to complete, but no one ever laid eyes on the document or did anything with it.
"It was a mountain of meaningless paperwork housed in a back room," he recalls.
Meetings are another common source of fake work, Peterson says. Too often they lack a clear purpose and a specific agenda and include people who are only peripherally involved in the project at hand. Meetings should only be held when absolutely necessary, he says, and stay within a time limit of 45 minutes.
Peterson points to one company that, after determining it was holding too many unnecessary meetings, sent around the agenda beforehand with a note inviting those who planned to attend to cross off any item that looked like it might lead to fake work. The agenda was sent back to its source with the suggestions and then rewritten.
The majority of good companies have a strategy, Peterson says. But even if it's a well-thought-through one, and even if it's understood down the line, it won't do much good if employees don't know how their role connects to the strategic goals.
The authors place much of the onus on upper management to spot fake work and make it real by learning how to listen to and use their people effectively. Employees also need to learn to be flexible and open to new ways of thinking so they can extricate themselves from fake work and free themselves up for more rewarding tasks.
Ultimately, fake work is a people problem, Peterson says. It's demoralizing and disempowering and can lead to a toxic workplace where employees may feel as if they're being victimized by a corporate bully.
"It makes people feel badly. It denigrates the importance of who they are," he says. "If I work all day on something that I know nobody is going to use or care about..."
His mission, says Peterson, who has worked with Fortune 1000 companies around the globe, is to get employees aligned with company goals and doing work that makes them feel good and makes the organization better.
"We've seen productivity jumps you wouldn't believe by doing that," he says, "not to mention happier employees."
Signs you're working on a road to nowhere:
- You don't really know the strategies of your company and the things that are most important for the whole company to accomplish.
- You're unable to clearly connect those strategies to what you are doing.
- You are simply ignorant about the importance of your work.
- Your hard work is not getting the results that matter.
- You hold meetings without a clear purpose and invite a bunch of people to share in the waste of time.
- You send emails daily to a huge distribution list of co-workers without considering whether they need the information.
- You hold off-site meetings that provide distraction, not value.
- You initiate projects that suck up time and are killed for lack of interest.
- You don't follow through on plans to implement needed changes, or you undermine such plans.
- You work on a report that you know nobody will read.
- You assign a report and then ignore it when it's completed.
- You require paperwork because, well, everybody has to do paperwork.
- You write proposals that are seen as an important aspect of the selling process, but they don't lead to an increase in sales.
- You set up a training program that is a lot of fun, is very interesting, and gets great reviews, but the program has no support from management because it doesn't really make a difference to the business.