Before You Judge Lazy Workers, Consider They Might Serve A Purpose A recent Japanese study shows the lazy ants play a critical role in colonies. They contribute when others die or drop out. The researcher says the same is true for humans. But is it?

Before You Judge Lazy Workers, Consider They Might Serve A Purpose

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/468138647/472105596" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Busy bees at work often resent their less-industrious colleagues. You know the ones - shamelessly watching March Madness on their computers, making loud personal calls, taking two-hour coffee breaks. But rarely does one hear the slacker's defense, and we thought about getting it ourselves, but whatever, you know? We thought it would just be easier to ask NPR's Yuki Noguchi to do it for us instead.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: Allison Lamb is a statistical clerk for a company in Fishers, Ind. She says she usually keeps her nose to the grind stone, while her coworker keeps her nose to the cell phone, gabbing, texting and gaming.

ALLISON LAMB: Sometimes people walk by and she's just sitting there laid back, looking at her phone. So I don't think she's trying too hard to look like she's working.

NOGUCHI: Lamb complains to the boss and gripes to friends on Instagram and Twitter. Often, she ends up having to take on the woman's neglected work.

LAMB: I've proven that I can do a lot. So I feel like if I slacked off, it would be noticed.

NOGUCHI: These kinds of scenarios occur throughout the animal kingdom, says Eisuke Hasegawa, a professor of agriculture at Hokkaido University in Japan. He studied the work habits of ants by painting the insects with brightly colored. At any given moment, he says, half of ants are basically doing nothing.

EISUKE HASEGAWA: (Through interpreter) Even when observed over a long period of time, between 20 and 30 percent of ants don't do anything that you could call work.

NOGUCHI: You'd think colonies with lots of bums would not thrive, but Hasegawa's study, published last month in Nature, shows colonies with a significant percentage of do-nothing-types are actually more resilient. They have a reserve workforce to replace dead or tired worker ants.

HASEGAWA: (Through interpreter) In the short term, lazy ants are inefficient, but in the long term they are not.

NOGUCHI: He says the same can be said for humans. The analogy isn't perfect. It assumes that lazy people, like ants, can be coaxed into working, and Hasegawa acknowledges some people are just plain lazy. Pat Dolan says she learned a lesson about laziness decades ago in high school, while working on an assembly line at a bookbinding company.

PAT DOLAN: For me, it was boring, so I tried to make it a challenge. How many pages can I collect, and how many books can I collect in an hour?

NOGUCHI: Dolan whizzed around until the foreman asked her to watch and learn from her slower colleagues.

DOLAN: I was 15 (laughter), so I was pretty judgmental and thought, well, you know, that lady's really slow; she's just a poke. But, you know, she was very good at a different aspect of the job.

NOGUCHI: Dolan, a retired teacher and artist in Bellefonte, Pa., says she now values slowness, especially when it comes to writing. She says modern culture prizes more, faster all the time, but that isn't necessarily better.

DOLAN: The point is deeper thought, and you have to slow down for that.

NOGUCHI: The last place I expected to hear a defense of laziness was from David Allen. For decades, his book, "Getting Things Done," has been a best-selling productivity manual. Allen champions a system where people get there to-do lists out of their heads as a way of focusing and being efficient.

DAVID ALLEN: The reason I discovered this is I'm probably the laziest guy you ever met.

NOGUCHI: Allen says many people confuse frantic energy with effectiveness. He argues some people are more effective on more sleep.

ALLEN: I sleep as long as I can. I used to kind of make that a joke, but it's actually the truth. And then I discovered the cognitive scientists saying that's going to make you smarter (laughter).

NOGUCHI: The person slacking off at work might be a genuine slacker or might be thinking through a complex problem. Glancing at someone won't always tell you how productive they are. Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington.

Copyright © 2016 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.