September 22, 2023

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Programming note

I recently surpassed five years at Gusto, earning me a short sabbatical, so On the Margins will be on hiatus during October, returning November 3. If you simply can’t live without my voice, written or otherwise, catch me on the podcast I do with my pal Greg Kyte, Oh My Fraud

And now, the newsletter.


We talk about work around here a lot. Most of us care too much about it. We overdo it. A lot of it is performative. On and on. This has been historically true in the accounting world, as many of you can attest. I dare say, though, things may have gotten a little better? The pandemic played a big part in that, but even pre-pan, many of us were just burned out. Too many years of working too much, and pretending that our lives depended on it. 

Right now, many people are trying to figure out where work falls on the pecking order of their lives. If work is still your number one priority and you refuse to give anything less than 110 percent, then know there is no judgment here. Just do this without any illusions and take some of mine while you’re at it, please. On the other hand, if you’re dialing it back a bit—good for you. 

But the question remains—what’s the right amount of effort? Life and work have gotten increasingly complicated in our data-driven world, and so many people require a quantifiable level of effort. If this is you, I have good news: the answer is 85 percent. That’s it. It’s done. Congratulations, everyone, we can all go home and return to work tomorrow to give 110% 85 percent.

When economist Krishnamurthy V. Subramanian gave one of his first major addre sses to the media as chief economic adviser for the Indian government, he prepared but tried not to overthink it. 

“It’s that Goldilocks balance,” says Subramanian, now an executive director at the International Monetary Fund based in Washington, D.C. “85% is not slacking.”

When two of his slides wouldn’t cue up at the last minute, he pushed away his nerves and reminded himself the speech would be OK even if it wasn’t perfect.

“I’ll wing it,” he told himself calmly. The presentation went just fine.

What a glorious collection of sentences.

  • “[P]repared but tried not to overthink it.”
  • “85% is not slacking.”
  • “[T]he speech would be OK even if it wasn’t perfect.”
  • “I’ll wing it.”
  • “The presentation went just fine.”

This is all coming from someone who was the Indian government’s chief economic advisor and is now an executive director at the International Monetary Fund. Those aren’t exactly modest positions devoid of pressure or significant expectations. By comparison, I don’t know how anyone with a physics degree working to serve ads on the internet can argue that they need to go beast mode all the time. 

Anyway. So what’s 85 percent? Is it 34 hours in a week? Is it 4.25 days? Is it 6.8 hours per day? Given that Fridays have evolved into something that resembles a quasi-weekend day, some version of that sounds about right? Still, it depends on the job. If you’re an accounting firm that requires 60 billable hours during the busy season but are open-minded enough to consider this 85 percent business, does that mean 51 hours? But then again, not all time is productive or involves quality effort. Sigh, this is already getting weird.

With apologies to the quantitatively inclined (which I realize is a lot of you), it seems that 85 percent is more of a state of mind than some numerical benchmark. For better or worse, whatever 85 percent means to you is roughly what you should shoot for. You’ll probably feel better, a little more balanced, and, hey, no guilt.

But I understand if you’re still keen to give 110 percent. Just maybe scale it back to 93.5. No one will know the difference.

Work (or lack thereof)

On the other end of the spectrum, we have folks who have found themselves in situations where effort is almost non-existent. This isn’t due to a lack of interest or not wanting to work; oddly, it’s just the circumstances they’ve found themselves in. And it’s not as rare as you might think. Virtually every company with more than a handful of people has at least one person you might rightly suspect isn’t doing anything. From Vox:

Strongly suspecting that a certain person isn’t doing much, or not nearly enough to fill up what is ostensibly an eight-hour day, seems to be a near-universal work experience. Many people have also, at some point in time, been that less-than-occupied worker. Sometimes, it’s intentional. Other times, like in Nate’s case, that’s just how the corporate cards have been dealt.

These jobless employed are a persistent presence in the working world, their existence a bug that’s become a feature. There’s a percentage of every job that’s bullshit, and in their case, that’s 90 percent, minimum.

I remember when I was still an accountant at a big accounting firm and spent six or seven weeks not doing anything. Similar to the stories above, it was largely a matter of circumstances, and I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t feel that good about it either. At the time, I got the impression that I wasn’t alone in the “Uh, I don’t have anything to do” department. And, no surprise, this stretch of nothing mercilessly ended with me and scores of other people being laid off and given meager severances. 

So how does this happen? Why does it happen? The article blames the boss, whoever that might be.

It may be the case that someone’s manager is cut — part of why laying off middle managers can be a problem — so they don’t have a real direct boss anymore who knows what they’re supposed to do. Perhaps their new boss is too swamped to pay attention, or they just don’t really care as long as the company’s making money. It might also be the case that their boss, new or old, isn’t doing much, either.

Part of me sympathizes with overwhelmed managers, but also, managers are supposed to be doing the work of managing. I think that means knowing what people who report to you do, and if they’re doing it. It seems to me that if a manager is managing too much, another manager may be needed to help with the managing. I don’t know what to say about the managers who’ve managed to get out of managing, inadvertently or not. Kudos, I guess? 

The hardest part of these jobs has to be the feeling of invisibility and uselessness that they must eventually create. What you’ll notice reading the Vox article is that no one is particularly happy with their situation. Most talk about finding another job or worry about their skills slipping. I can’t think of anyone who wants to feel invisible or useless. Perhaps this is obvious; people aren’t invisible, and they’re not useless.

Part of the reason people work is that it gives them a purpose, a reason to get up in the morning. If the reason you get up kinda sorta doesn’t exist in the context that it’s supposed to—i.e., you have a job, but it’s a job where you don’t literally do anything—that won’t make people feel good. Jobs in the best of circumstances can be challenging. On average, they’re hard enough. But if they lose all meaning, if they become nothing—that’s far worse. 

Fresh from Gusto

Listen to the Gustonomics Podcast starring Gusto’s Principal Economist, Liz Wilke, as she charts the economic landscape for 21st-century businesses. 

In each 10-minute episode, Liz discusses economic concepts and trends for anyone who wants to make smarter decisions in the fast-paced world. The most recent episode discusses unions and all the labor activity of the past couple years. Listen wherever you get podcasts.


New to Gusto? Our on-demand webinar, Grow with Gusto: Next Steps for Your Practice, is here for you. If you’re new to the Gusto Partner Program and wondering what’s next, this session is for you. Editor-at-Large Caleb Newquist and Gusto representatives will discuss FAQs, considerations, and recommendations on what to do next. Register and watch now.

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Caleb Newquist Caleb is Editor-at-Large at Gusto. In 2009, he became the founding editor of Going Concern, the one-of-a-kind voice on the accounting profession, serving in the role for 9 years. Prior to Going Concern, Caleb worked as a CPA for nearly 6 years in New York and Denver. He lives in Denver with his wife, two daughters, and two cats.
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