In the preface to the Dilbert collection This Is the Part Where You Pretend to Add Value, Adams openly gives his impressions of 16 years of employment at Crocker National Bank and Pacific Bell:
“If I had to describe my 16 years of corporate work with one phrase, it would be ‘pretending to add value.’ … The key to career advancement is appearing valuable despite all hard evidence to the contrary. … If you add any actual value to your company today, your career is probably not moving in the right direction. Real work is for people at the bottom who plan to stay there.”
Other office workers have presented similar accounts. In The Living Dead, David Bolchover rues “the dominance of image over reality, of obfuscation over clarity, of politics over performance,” and in City Slackers, Steve McKevitt, a disillusioned “business and communications expert,” gloomily declares: “In a society where presentation is everything, it’s no longer about what you do, it’s about how you look like you’re doing it.”
The simulation, the glossing over, the loss of meaning, the jargon, the games, the office politics, the crises, the boredom, the despair, and the sense of unreality—these are ingredients that often reappear in popular accounts of working life. The risk when they only appear in popular culture is that we begin regarding them as metaphors or exaggerations that may well apply to our own jobs but not to work in general. But what would happen if we started taking these “unserious” accounts of working life more seriously?
Consider the last novel by David Foster Wallace, The Pale King, in which an IRS worker dies by his desk and remains there for days without anyone noticing that he is dead. This might be read as a brilliant satire of how work drains liveliness such that no one notices whether you are dead or alive. However, in the strict sense of the word, this was not fiction. In 2004, a tax-office official in Finland died in exactly the same way while checking tax returns. Although there were about 100 other workers on the same floor and some 30 employees in the auditing department where he worked, it took them two days to notice that he was dead. None of them seemed to feel the loss of his labors; he was only found when a friend stopped by to have lunch with him.
How could no one notice? I talked with over 40 people who spent half of their working hours on private activities—a phenomenon I call “empty labor.” I wanted to know how they did it, and I wanted to know why. "Why" turned out to be the easy part: For most people, work simply sucks. We hate Mondays and we long for Fridays—it's not a coincidence that evidence points towards a peak in cardiac mortality on Monday mornings.
There are, of course, exceptional cases. According to a Gallup report from last year, 13 percent of employees from 142 countries are “engaged” in their jobs. However, twice as many are “actively disengaged”—they’re negative and potentially hostile to their organizations. The majority of workers, though, are simply “checked out,” the report says.