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Meaningless meetings, pointless projects: Faking it on the job

A pinstripe-suited businessman hold out his hand for a handshake with a home-made smiley mask in front of his face.

Alistair Scott

What's on your agenda today? If you're like many, you'll be clearing an in-box of irrelevant e-mails, attending meaningless meetings, working on purposeless projects, and attacking piles of pointless paperwork.

Hard you may be working - but hard work is not the same as real work, contends organizational consultant Gaylan Nielson. And at least half of what most people do each day is "fake work," says Mr. Nielson, co-author of the book Fake Work: Why People are Working Harder Than Ever but Accomplishing Less, and How to Fix the Problem.

While you might think companies that trimmed staffs and budgets in the recession would have also tried to cut down the busywork and inefficiencies, "it's clear that managers and employees still aren't asking basic questions about the importance and relevance of the work they do every day," Mr. Nielson says.

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"Fake work is work that wastes everyone's time because it isn't necessary to get the company any closer to achieving its goals," he says.

That's based on surveys of more than 100,000 employees at 300 U.S. organizations that Mr. Nielson, chief executive officer of Salt Lake City-based The Work Itself Group, carried out with company chairman and book co-author Brent Peterson.

Among their findings: nearly nine in 10 employees are regularly unsatisfied with the results of their work; more than two-thirds say they duplicate efforts because of a lack of co-ordination; and more than half don't know whether their work supports their company's goals.

The authors lay much of the blame at the feet of managers, who should be questioning fake work a lot more, they say. Employees would also be wise to get more real: Dumping the pointless work would free them up for more valuable and rewarding tasks, and help get them out of the office on time, Mr. Nielson says.

Here are the major ways Mr. Nielson says we fake it, and his suggestions for how to get real:


Faking it: When companies showed Mr. Nielson their corporate strategy statements, he found them to be either overly complicated multi-page documents that few would bother trying to read and might have trouble understanding, or, at the other extreme, they were sketchy mission statements with no detail.

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"Either way, they didn't give individual employees a sense of the company's objectives and what they should be trying to do each day to help achieve them."

Get real: Leaders should identify big-picture goals for the short and long terms. Long-term goals might include what products and services they want to develop and how to improve profitability over the next year. Shorter-term goals would be tasks that must be done in the next week or month to meet deadlines and keep projects moving forward. Managers should encourage employees to set weekly and monthly agendas in pursuit of the goals.


Faking it: Too many meetings look backward at what's been done, rather than ahead at what needs to be done. And, so people won't feel left out, meeting attendees often include people only peripherally involved in projects.

Get real: Meetings should be held only when absolutely necessary and only with those who really need to be there. They should come with a specific agenda and a tight time frame of no more than 45 minutes. To keep things short, the consultants suggest stand-up meetings.


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Faking it: In many organizations, reports are written but not read and instead merely filed. The process may be so deeply entrenched that people have never questioned it.

Get real: Before any report is requested, leaders should ask: Who will actually read it? Could I handle it better by talking to people directly or by e-mail? Is it even necessary; could it change anything or has the decision already been made?


Faking it: Most e-mails are too long and have no clear purpose or action request. And they are sent to too many people who don't really need to see them.

Get real: Include only what's absolutely necessary for the e-mail recipient to know and make clear what you want done. Also, cut down the recipient list.


Faking it: Many organizations run training programs without considering the application of what's being taught to people's actual work, and who needs to learn it.

Get real: Make sure that all training programs are linked to strategies and are developing skills in specific individuals that will help the organization's success.


Faking it: One big reason the fake work culture persists is because people are too afraid to speak up and question what they're doing, fearful it will make them be seen as dispensable.

Get real: Turn that fear around. Encourage people to question fake work. The people who help make the real work happen that will serve the company's interests are the ones who are actually more likely to be kept.



Know the goals

Get clear on what management considers the organization's short- and long-term needs.

Understand your job

Think through what your role on the team is, and how it serves the organization's objectives.

Ask questions

When you get an assignment, delve into the reasons behind it, and how it fits with the company's strategy.

Push back

If you have tasks that you don't feel are useful, negotiate with your manager to do work that you can demonstrate has more relevance.

Curb conferences

Only schedule meetings and conference calls if they have a real work purpose and tight agendas.

Make improvement a priority

Never take for granted that the way something has been done is the best way to do it.

Promote teamwork

Know what others are doing and encourage them to help each other identify and eliminate fake work.


Understand the big picture

It's critical to know the company's goals and how the projects that you are managing directly support them.

Translate for the team

Regularly communicate to employees what you know about the company's goals. That will get them thinking about ways to make their work as useful as possible.

Cut the red tape

Everything from reports to decision-making processes should be questioned to see whether there are steps that can be eliminated.

Get onto the shop floor

Getting out of the office and talking with employees about barriers they are facing will help identify work that wastes time.

Cut more slack

Employees should be empowered to find their own ways to do their work most effectively.

Examine rewards

If your commendations and bonuses are based on the volume of work done rather than quality or innovation, you may inadvertently propagate fake work.

Wallace Immen


87 Percentage of employees who say they are regularly unsatisfied with the results of their work.

70 Percentage who say they duplicate efforts because of a lack of co-ordination with others on their team.

68 Percentage who don't feel their work-group goals are translated into real work tasks.

56 Percentage who don't know whether what they do supports their company's goals.

53 Percentage who think that at least half of the work they do in a day doesn't accomplish anything.

Source: Fake Work by Gaylan W. Nielson and Brent D. Peterson

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About the Author

Wallace Immen is an award-winning staff writer for The Globe and Mail whose stories about workplace trends and career advice, as well as about cruising and travel destinations around the world appear regularly in print and on-line. He has worn many hats in his career with the Globe, including science writer, medical writer and columnist, urban affairs reporter and travel writer. More

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