Working Hard to Look Busy

Via The New York Times

by Jan Hoffman

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.

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