To a passer-by, the chic clothing store on Mott Street in Manhattan looked like a tumult of activity. On a recent weekday afternoon, Carolyn Bailey, a supervisor, was fussing with the window displays of women’s clothing, shifting piles of perfectly folded sweaters, spacing hangers a finger-width apart, debating avidly on the phone with a higher-up about coordinating outfits.
Though she appeared occupied, intently so, she was creating an illusion of busyness. The NoLIta shop was empty.
“You don’t want anyone from corporate to walk in and see you doing nothing,” Ms. Bailey said. “You’ve got to keep busy for them and the clients. You have to be proactive —” she broke off to reposition a handsome pair of boots, “so we’ll do a lot of refolding and dusting. Hey, I might just mop!”
By day’s end, six customers had wandered in. Ms. Bailey charmed three into making purchases.
“I’m putting the energy out there,” said Ms. Bailey, a single mother. “I have to stay positive. And busy.”
In a sunny economy, workers joke about frittering away the hours during traditional slow times, like January, confident that things will eventually pick up. Looking busy when you’re not in order to fool the boss can be something of an art form.
But now, when business is verrry slow and the possibility of layoffs icily real, looking busy is no joke. In retail and real estate, restaurants and law offices, many workers are working hard to look necessary — even when they don’t have all that much to do.
Their concerns are warranted. The unemployment rate is 7.2 percent, more layoffs have been forecast for 2009 and employers have been shrinking workweeks. While staff reductions have left many remaining employees feeling breathless with too much work, at companies where downtime is glaringly obvious, employees are becoming creative about disguising idleness.
A portfolio manager, 30, who works for a private equity firm in New Jersey, scatters papers on his desk. When he skips out for long lunches, he colludes with friends in other offices to call him — and deliberately leaves behind his cellphone, with the ringer’s volume set to high. (Like many workers interviewed for this article he requested that neither his name nor his company be mentioned, worried that his position would be at risk.)
A lawyer at the New York office of an international firm wanted to give the impression he was working late at night — but he was stymied by office lighting that would dim when he left the room. So he brought in an oscillating fan, which tricked the motion detectors into keeping the lights on long after he’d departed.
A Manhattan advertising executive in his 30s who oversees the print ads for a major account that may be on the verge of collapse, positions his monitor to face the window, so colleagues can’t see that he’s designing toys for the baby he and his wife are expecting this spring.
In fact, cyberloafing — the nonwork-related use of computers by employees — often gives temporary cover to those who want to appear busy, if they can master the furrowed brow, the studious squint at the monitor (while bidding on eBay). Work e-mail messages can be programmed to be sent in the middle of the night, so that workers can seem 24-7 dedicated.
Flinging headlong into busywork itself is another way to seem indispensable. Re-indexing transaction papers. Studying regulations in areas with only a chimerical connection to yours. Writing notes to customers to thank them just for coming in to browse.
In these unbusy times, busywork’s bad reputation may be due for revision. Busywork can give you a reassuring, small-bore task. It can trigger ideas for genuine productivity. It can stave off boredom for some, even as it drives others absolutely batty. It can spray a room with the smell of nervous fear.
But it is nonetheless something to do. A sales associate who works at a national clothing outlet in Westbrook, Conn., said she had readjusted her attitude toward refolding garments, retail’s numbingly repetitive busywork. Now when customers leave clothes balled up in fitting rooms, the saleswoman feels grateful.
“On slow days, you realize you need that crumpled clothing on the floor, and you don’t want customers to put them neatly back on the racks,” she said.