A friend of mind works with a newspaper organization. Whenever we catch up and talk shop, she laments about her work. One particular day, she narrated how her organization works. There are fancy names to roles, she says, like Internal Logistics Manager, but all that person does is transfer files and stuff from one department to the other. Don’t you have attenders for that, I asked, for most offices have such staff, to which she replied that these are people who have been rehabilitated from other departments for non-performance or similar issues and who cannot be dispensed off because of their nuisance value. I could just imagine someone doing such kind of boring work day-in and day-out, basically non-essential work. Come to think of it, the moment the management decides that this work or anything similar can be done in less time and at less cost by someone on a lower level, or is clubbed with someone’s existing roles, that person is immediately jobless. What, then, is the significance of such work and why do people do them? You would even go further and ask me how do they do it.
Non-essential work explained
Simply put, non-essential work is all the work that a person does and who can be replaced at short notice and resumed without many skills or training. But the problem is that most of us know we’re doing such non-essential work but won’t dare say that even to ourselves for fear of being replaced by someone who demands less and performs more. We won’t confess to ourselves even because all along we have been showing to everyone else and believing ourselves that our work is very important. That no one else can do it.
Constantly living with the fear of losing our job means that we go on to work longer hours, keep ourselves busy and ensure that everyone sees us doing something while nothing significant is being done. The façade is so brilliantly built that people start believing the pseudo importance of their work, they begin enjoying the built-up stress and the drudgery of it all, forgetting all the while that this is not essential work.
The 2020 Covid-19 pandemic and the forced lockdown exposed these kinds of non-essential work. It even showed what work takes how much time and who (all) can do it with less efforts and less time. So people like the aforementioned ‘Internal Logistics Manager’ were basically rendered redundant in a work-from-home environment. This is not to say that all those who earn a living doing this kind of work need to be laid off or they’re worthless. There are also reasons best known to the management why they (knowingly) allow such roles to existing. Sometimes it’s the person’s past performance that has benefited the organization, sometimes it’s their nuisance value and at other times its just benevolence. I have known some exceptionally talented friends and acquaintances who have been hired for non-essential work in spite of their talent and have later been elevated to plum positions, something we call ‘parking talent’ till they find the right fit.
Practical tips to understand non-essential work
- If you can realize it on your own, that’s the best thing to happen. Or else, pick up hints from colleagues and friends when they say that your work is so easy, anyone can do it. Perform a thorough assessment of your own work yourself. Find out how much each task can take when done with complete focus and how much time you are spending on it.
- Be brutally honest about your work. If you’re simply pretending to be busy while you’re passing time, let that honesty shows.
- Don’t wait for the annual performance appraisal, do it yourself every day if you can.
- Take the initiative to learn something relevant for your role and offer your services. Yes, eyebrows will be raised that if you can do existing work and take up new one too within the same work hours, you must be underperforming all the while. Don’t worry about what people say. You will feel better once you take up significant tasks on your own.
- Being busy and occupied with your work is much better and satisfying than showing that you are busy.
- Upgrade your qualifications so you can apply for high-paying senior roles, within or outside your company. The pandemic and the lockdown has shown how vulnerable our jobs are. Only those whose work mattered at all times could heave a sigh of relief as they kept their jobs while others lost theirs because it was simply not needed. Now staying relevant is in your hands and no one but you can make you realize that.
- A lot of people are realizing that they spent a hell lot of time in doing non-essential work like meetings, conference calls, and reviews that could be done with as much ease online during the work-from-home period. Many companies have decided to continue the WFH schedule for several roles. It is indeed an epiphany for workers and organizations about the way things were being done before the pandemic and during the WFH period.
For most of us, our work is our sole identity. So when you ask someone who are you, nine out of ten times that person will reply with the title of their work, like I’m a doctor, I’m a manager, I’m a teacher. In such a scenario, making work meaningful cannot always be the responsibility of your employers, who are burdened with many other existential tasks. The onus lies on each employee to assess your own work and find meaning and value in the work that you do. Otherwise, you will end up being busy but producing nothing significant and live with the constant threat of losing your jobs.
Staying relevant, upgrading skills, initiating to help others, sharing work, being of help to colleagues, and learning new skills is the only way forward. That is one important lesson that the pandemic has taught us.
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