AS LAWS GO, the dictum devised by C. Northcote Parkinson, a naval historian, was admirably succinct: “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” His essay, first published in The Economist in 1955, has stood the test of time, in the sense that people still refer to “Parkinson’s law”. But the experience of working life during the pandemic means that Bartleby would now like to suggest three corollaries to the theorem.
At the start of his essay, Parkinson cited the case of an elderly lady requiring a day to send a postcard to her niece. The process involved time spent searching for spectacles, postcard and umbrella, as well as composing the message. The details may be dated but the idea is still resonant—faced with a task, people procrastinate.
When it comes to office work, the incentives to dawdle are pretty clear. Finish an assignment quickly, and the employee will just be given another. That second task may be even more unpleasant than the first. Workers may end up like a hamster on a treadmill, stuck in an endless cycle of needless effort.
Office workers know, however, that the mission itself is not the only thing. It is important to be seen to be working. This leads to “presenteeism”—being at your desk for long enough to impress the boss (and even turning up while...
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