Don’t bet against the ‘suitcase principle’ of white-collar work

Don’t bet against the ‘suitcase principle’ of white-collar work

In 1984, the journalist Steven Levy wrote a great article about the electronic spreadsheet, a new invention which was saving people huge amounts of time. He told the story of an accountant who got “a rush task, sat down with his micro and his spreadsheet, finished it in an hour or two, and left it on his desk for two days. Then he Fed Ex-ed it to the client and got all sorts of accolades for working overtime.”

I’ve spent the past few weeks meeting lawyers, accountants and consultants who are beginning to use generative AI in their everyday work. They all talk about the time savings involved in having the AI do technical research for them, or the first drafts of documents or provisions.

I was curious about what they were doing with the saved time. Going home early? Having longer lunches? Stupid question. They’re using the time to do more work.

White-collar workers demonstrated the same tendency in the pandemic. A global survey of people in 27 countries published this year found that working from home saved about two hours of commute time per week per worker in 2021 and 2022. What did people do with it? According to the survey, they devoted the biggest chunk of it — about 40 per cent — to doing more work, with smaller amounts spent on leisure and childcare.

Online calendars and remote meeting software, meanwhile, seem to have encouraged people to fill up each other’s days even more.

“Now, people generally look at diaries and the first thing they do is look for a 15-minute gap, and it just gets taken,” one consultant tells me. “My biggest challenge is finding time to eat lunch.”

I’ve come to think of this as the “suitcase principle” of white-collar work: just as you always fill your up suitcase whether you’re going away for a weekend or a week, white-collar work always seems to expand to fill the time available.

What happened after the invention of spreadsheets is an instructive example of how time-saving technology can create more work. The days when accountants could sit back and relax didn’t last long. By time Levy was writing, the new technology was already reshaping demand.

People began to expect work to be done quicker because they knew it could be done quicker. More importantly, spreadsheets vastly expanded what kind of analysis was possible.

Suddenly, businesses could keep track of things which previously went unmonitored because they would have taken too much time to calculate, such as the daily performance rankings of sales employees. And with the push of a few buttons, it was now possible to model all kinds of different scenarios: what would happen to the bottom line if we cut the pension plan, or sold that factory, or acquired this company in a hostile takeover?

These new capabilities shaped the course of corporate history, and they also created tonnes more work for people to do. Many thousands of jobs as accounting clerks disappeared, as will those jobs today which consist mostly of tasks that AI can do cheaper, such as copywriters. But that doesn’t mean there will be less white-collar work overall. Demand and expectations might well expand as different products and services become possible.

My “suitcase principle” is not, it turns out, a particularly original thought. In an essay in the Economist in 1955, C Northcote Parkinson described the same phenomenon in the civil service. According to “Parkinson’s law”, officials like to multiply their subordinates and they all tend to make work for each other.

He describes the arrival of an incoming document: “Official E decides that it falls within the province of F, who places a draft reply before C, who amends it drastically before consulting D, who asks G to deal with it. But G goes on leave at this point, handing the file over to H, who drafts a minute, which is signed by D and returned to C, who revises his draft accordingly and lays the new version before A.”

Person A rewrites it and goes home as the light fades, “reflecting, with bowed shoulders and a wry smile, that late hours, like grey hairs, are among the penalties of success”.

Is working life in most large companies and bureaucracies really so different today, in spite of tools such as email, spreadsheets, Slack and Zoom? And will it really be so different with generative AI in the mix?

I’m not sure whether to admire or despair at the human ability to make work for ourselves. But even in the age of AI, I think you would be brave to bet against it.

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