Saluting the Lazy Employee

Laziness is under-rated as a virtue. Indeed, it’s usually not considered a virtue at all. That’s a shame because lazy people are driven to make their lives easier, and when you’re looking for ways to make your life easier, you’re often led to creative, resourceful thinking. It’s the lazy, yet highly smart and competent, employee who’s likely to develop a streamlined, more efficient way of operating. 

I wanted to find other people with an affinity for laziness, so I Googled “Virtue of laziness,” and a page came up with a reference to the best programmers being lazy. Laziness as an attribute of great programmers seems to come from Larry Wall, author of “Programming Perl.” His thought behind the usefulness of laziness is similar to my idea about it: “The quality that makes you go to great effort to reduce overall energy expenditure. It makes you write labor-saving programs that other people will find useful, and document what you wrote so you don’t have to answer so many questions about it. Hence, the first great virtue of a programmer.”

Much has been said about the value of hard work. It’s gotten great press because it’s the most democratic of all the virtues. Anyone can work hard, but not anyone can be talented or have good luck. It’s true that hard work is within your control, unlike talent and good luck. But laziness is equally within your grasp. It’s a choice to be creative enough to develop solutions that allow you to work smarter, not harder, and to create products and services that appeal to other lazy people. Not everyone is blessed with laziness, but there are many of us out there—it’s one of the great markets—if not the great market—that can never be over-tapped. 

Just as customers love products and services that enable them to maximize laziness, such as the two-tap ordering of food on your phone for home delivery via apps such as Seamless (a personal favorite of mine), employees can be motivated by laziness. Showing openness to new processes that are streamlined and more efficient, and rewarding those who come up with such ideas, is a great way to inspire innovation. There is a still a Puritanical philosophy at some organizations, which I have experienced, that looks suspiciously at strategies that are efficient and reduce workload. At some organizations, employees are sent just the opposite message. The people most often rewarded with respect and career advancement are those who show they are working hard, rather than those who innovate to develop more efficient, labor-minimal work processes. 

In manager training and leadership development, it can be useful to have a segment on creative and resourceful thinking, and how important it is to be open to employees who have found more efficient ways of doing their work—even when it means they will be making their own job easier in the process. A workforce looking for ways to make its work lives easier is a good thing, rather than something to look at with raised eyebrows and skepticism. On the flip side, the employee who spends long hours at the office, and usually has little to show for it, should be re-evaluated. If your culture emphasizes hard work over creativity and resourcefulness, you may be shocked at how much posturing is occurring. There are employees in a hard-work culture who will get to the office early, leave late, and send an (unnecessary) e-mail on the weekend just to demonstrate that they are working hard. They’ve been taught that looking like they’re working hard is more important than being innovative and finding ways to be more efficient. 

What about an award in your organization for Best Lazy Employee? It’s scary to use the word, “lazy,” because it has negative connotations, but it’s a word everyone understands, and many people would use to describe themselves if they were being honest. Optimizing this common personality trait so that it results in good work outcomes makes sense. The Best Lazy Employee award would be a doff of the cap to employees who have developed an effective way to have the same, or better, end product with less work and time. 

How can you send positive messages about the value of creativity, resourcefulness, and working smarter, not harder? Do your employees understand that they will be rewarded for finding ways of streamlining their work?