Workplace Refrain: Do More With Less

The government says 7.6 percent of Americans are unemployed. That's a scary number, but it means most workers still have jobs. These days, many employees are hearing four familiar words: Do more with less.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Seven-point-six percent of Americans are now unemployed. That's a scary number, but it still leaves most people with jobs. We head to work everyday facing lean budgets and fewer coworkers, sadly. And as Chana Joffe-Walt reports, many of us are hearing the same exhortation communicated in four little words.

CHANA JOFFE-WALT: It was long before the company failed, long before Evan Wagner started working 12-hour days, and years before his last vacation when he was first hit with it.

Mr. EVAN WAGNER (IndyMac Bank): I think I first heard do more with less probably six months before we started doing major layoffs at IndyMac.

JOFFE-WALT: IndyMac: the giant Southern California mortgage lender that collapsed with a huge splash. Okay. But before all that, people inside IndyMac started getting the four words: got to do more with less. Do more with less. And to Evan Wagner, that sounded pretty sweet.

Mr. WAGNER: Because it means opportunity, that I'm going to have people relying on me more. You know, hey, the company's dependent upon me to carry my weight.

JOFFE-WALT: For Professor Jim Long over at the Oregon Institute of Technology, it was in a faculty meeting. The chancellor said it first, and Professor Long, he didn't hear it same way Evan Wagner did. He heard…

Professor JIM LONG (Oregon Institute of Technology): We're looking at program cuts. People are going to lose their jobs, and we're going to reduce programs for students.

JOFFE-WALT: For Alexa Schlosser(ph), it was after they cut her staff almost in half. Schlosser is copy chief at Michigan State University's student newspaper.

Ms. ALEXA SCHLOSSER (Copy Chief, Michigan State University Student Newspaper): Doing more with less, doing more with less. And I'm thinking, how can I do that? Doing more will have to mean that I have to do what I'm doing less well.

Mr. BEN ZIMMER (Lexicographer): I think the phrase is useful in many ways because it's strategically vague.

JOFFE-WALT: This here is Ben Zimmer, a lexicographer with the Visual Thesaurus. Zimmer loves phrases like do more with less - the same four words repeated everywhere, same words interpreted a million different ways. He asks how the phrase became so flexible, so overused? And then Zimmer proceeds to answer that question by starting in 1758 with a guy named Benjamin Franklin.

Mr. ZIMMER: He said that by diligence shall we do more with less perplexity. Well, there he was talking about how we should work hard and achieve greater results. But he actually specified less perplexity.

JOFFE-WALT: In Franklin's essay, he's talking about making work simpler by just being focused and industrious. Zimmer says 100 years later, French economist Frederic Bastiat picked up on that same idea.

Mr. ZIMMER: He said man is so constituted, that his constant concern is to lessen the ratio of effort to result, to substitute the action of nature for his own action. In a word: to do more with less.

JOFFE-WALT: Allow industrialization new tools to make our work easier. Bastiat is not talking about working harder. He's talking about putting your feet up. And this meaning of the phrase didn't change for centuries. And then…

Unidentified Man: Place the war first. Expect to have to make adjustments. Make them. Observe rationing and price rules. Thanks a lot. Good luck.

JOFFE-WALT: World War II arrived, and do more with less was put to a new use and completely transformed. Ben Zimmer again.

Mr. ZIMMER: And it's used to get people into the frame of mind that we don't have much like we did before the war. Our resources are scarce. We have to put a lot of those resources directly into the war effort, but we have to learn to do more with less resources.

JOFFE-WALT: That's when it happened. Suddenly, those four words meant get the same stuff done with fewer people, less money. The war ended, soldiers came home, decades passed. But do more with less did not budge. It achieved catch-phrase status. And so now that it's showing up all the time - once again in hard economic times - what do we do with it?

Well, Frank Landy advises companies on how to work with their employees. He's a workplace psychologist, so I asked him. And he says it's all about context. Lay off a bunch a people and then tell your remaining staff plainly I need y'all to do more with less, don't be surprised if you get this reaction.

Dr. FRANK LANDY (Workplace Psychologist): When I joined you X number of years ago, I was told that I would have a job as long as I continued to contribute, and I've been contributing. So, you must have lied, and you must be a non-compassionate, uncaring, mechanical, brutal employer. So you fooled me.

JOFFE-WALT: But Landy says with a little context, a manager can inspire staff, as Evan Wagner from IndyMac was inspired. Management can emphasize the opportunity to move up, to develop new skills, can say listen, we're going to need to do more with less…

Dr. LANDY: But, what this means is that we're going to be counting on you, that we are going to make not less of an investment in you but even more of an investment in you because you're worth more now than you were before to us.

JOFFE-WALT: Telling someone you're all we have left, Landy says, that can be pretty motivating.

For NPR News, I'm Chana Joffe-Walt.

MONTAGNE: You can do more - well, a little more - just by checking out our Planet Money Podcast and blog at NPR.org/Money.

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