In a 1995 episode of The Simpsons, Homer intentionally gains more than 60 pounds so he can get on disability and work from home. He succeeds, in true Donut Goblin fashion, and a computer work station is set up in the Simpson home. When Homer realizes that all he needs to do for work is to press “y” to answer “yes” on the computer, he leaves a drinking bird pressing the appropriate key while he goes out to see a movie, essentially automating his job.
In 2020, it seems that more and more workers, somewhat concealed while working from home, are making like Homer and automating their duties so they can take advantage of everything else life has to offer. But instead of using a mere drinking bird, they rely on complex codes. “A couple months ago I started a new job which is work from home and I have automated my job to where I do maybe 3 hours of work a week,” explains redditor Sweet-Entertainer. “The rest of my time at home is spent watching TV, playing games and just chilling basically.”
Similarly, user Howray reveals, “I finish my daily work in 1-2 hours with the help of my scripts. After that, it’s just responding to emails and the dreadful rare meeting.” Now, they spend their newfound free time playing League of Legends.
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The exact technicalities of what these coders have managed to code remains something of a mystery — for obvious reasons, they want to keep their jobs confidential. However, Sweet-Entertainer works in “risk measurement and financial reporting,” and Howray does “insurance claims.” Therefore, we can probably assume that they’ve both managed to create codes that fill out spreadsheets, complete complex equations and possibly respond to claimants. (In many other online self-automation stories, workers typically write codes for their data entry jobs, so keep that in mind moving forward.)
Whatever the case, both of these workers are salaried employees, and despite dramatically shortening their workdays, continue to get paid in full, since their employers are none the wiser. For your average worker, these might sound like impressive cases of working smarter, not harder. But your average boss may have a more cynical impression after learning that one of their employees, despite getting all their work done, has been p0wning noobs while on the clock. So, who should really reap the benefits when a worker automates their own responsibilities?
People have been slyly automating their jobs since before quarantine, too, and ethics has always been a big question. One coder — redditor FiletOfFish1066 — went viral for being fired after six whole years of automating their job and enjoying the ultimate slacker lifestyle. In their post, they write, “From around 6 years ago up until now, I have done nothing at work. I am not joking. For 40 hours each week I go to work, play League of Legends in my office, browse Reddit and do whatever I feel like. In the past 6 years I have maybe done 50 hours of real work.”
Yet another programmer, going by the name Etherable, posted a now-viral query to Workplace on Stack Exchange, where coders often gather virtually, asking, “Is it unethical for me to not tell my employer I’ve automated my job?”
The answer depends on who you ask.
In an email, Nate and James of Get Automated, a website dedicated to automating anything and everything, tell me, “We believe that it is ethical to get your job done as efficiently as possible and shouldn’t impact your relationship with the company as long as the work is of high quality.”
But unfortunately, this is likely wishful thinking under capitalism. “The reality is, if you’re more efficient, your employer is still paying you to work for eight hours a day,” says HR expert Staci McIntosh. “So, ethically, you should say, ‘Hey, I have additional capacity due to [automating my job]. Are there other projects you want me to work on?’ If they decline, you’re in the clear. But remember, they’re still paying you. Not working when you should be, regardless of the reason, is stealing time from your company. I know that’s a strict stance, but you truly can get fired if your company finds out you’re out having fun when you should be working, unless you expressly asked for more work due to your added time. That said, not all employers will approach it that way, and some are more ‘outcome-driven’ as the way we work evolves. So, you really need to know your employer and check, preferably in an email that documents you asked.”
In fact, as machines continue to steal away our jobs, automating parts of our jobs may soon become an expectation, and probably already has in some cases. “Employees will increasingly need to automate their own jobs or get moved out,” writes the Harvard Business Review. “Worldwide, we’ll see many more top-down managerial mandates for bottom-up automation initiatives.”
My main takeaway here? If you do manage to automate your job, never tell a soul.