The List of Microscopic Office Crimes I (Boffins Office 2)

Having discussed my take on meetings, I'd like to focus this second installment of Boffin's Office on microscopic office crimes. Like most things micro, they don't make the world fall apart, but they can be profoundly wasteful and lead to unnecessary tensions in the workplace.

I keep this list as a reminder to myself what not to do. Of course that doesn't mean I never did any of these things: In fact the whole point of this reminder list is exactly because I tend to forget about these issues ;).

Anywhere, here goes:

Delegate tiny tasks

“Could you forward this two-line e-mail to Jimmy, please?” Source: pixabay.

As a supervisor, I am encouraged by many other supervisors to delegate, delegate, delegate. After all, if you have multiple people working for you, delegating means that you can get multiple tasks finished at the same time.

Why could this be bad? Well, delegating doesn't come for free. First, you have to request someone to do the particular task, and monitor the progress and outcome. And second, the person you delegate to might or might not like the task you've just delegated.

Now I used to get very annoyed whenever I was given the responsibility over a task that literally takes a minute or two to finish. Whereas the supervisor might think that this task is nice and easy, the one being supervised is much more likely to wonder why the line manager couldn't just do that task her- or himself. So, now that I have a supervisor role, I need to avoid delegating such tiny tasks (unless they are repeating of course).

Perverse variation: Delegate a tiny task, then do it yourself after all and ignore any input you received from others. Oh, and make them feel them guilty for not responding promptly enough. I wouldn't mention it if I hadn't experienced it ;)..

Requiring confirmations for appointments

In the UK, it is almost impossible to stick to this one, as half the country enjoys making an appointment, only to then get back to you weeks later to check and confirm, once again, whether the appointment still stands. You had better respond that time, otherwise the appointment will be lost.

Coming from a Dutch background, I wasn't used to this practice at all: an appointment made is an appointment confirmed. At first I thought it was because others didn't trust me to stick to the appointments I made. However, I soon discovered that it had little to do with the trust in me, and all the more with people's general assumptions that colleagues run a sloppy agenda.

Why could this be bad? Well, it roughly doubles all incoming messages that are about appointment-making, which is about half of what my inbox consists of. Moreover, it encourages people to run a sloppy agenda, as if an appointment not confirmed twice isn't really an appointment at all. Lastly, it doesn't exactly exude trust in the other party...

Worst of all, imagine when the era dawns that people start fading on confirmed appointments. Are we then going to move to double-, triple- or quadruple-confirmed appointments?

Perverse variation: Double-confirm an appointment, and then not show up yourself. I've had this happen once to me, and I must admit having committed this crime once as well, to my own shame.

Send a person on holiday an e-mail about non-critical work things

“Just in case you started enjoying yourself...”. Courtesy of and **.

We all get them: you're away on a trip, make the mistake of checking your inbox, and realize the pile of screaming e-mails telling you to paint the new bicycle shed. Very often, the blame here falls on the receiver (”Don't check your inbox while on holiday!”), but I prefer to focus on the sender here.

Why could this be bad? People take holiday to spend quality time with family and friends, to recover from the strain caused by work, or simply because they deserve it. It's therefore a very bad time to send messages.

On the rare occasion that I do send them, I try to first determine whether the recipient would want to receive a particular message in the middle of holiday, given the mental disruption it causes?

The answer is generally no, except if the person on holiday would miss out on something very valuable (e.g., a grant, contract extension, accepted publication or trip they're already keen to make) if I were not to contact them, and very little action is required from their side.

Perverse variation: So you're bothered by e-mails? How about WhatsApps or worse still: phone calls on your mobile? :)

Imposing overly early deadlines

Courtesy of **.

You need to send out that 10-page report by the 20th, so ask for input by the 13th. But what if you fear that the others will not abide the deadline?

Indeed, one habit I come across in academia is people imposing overly early deadlines on others. In an attempt to prevent themselves from being overloaded with last-minute work, they request others to contribute earlier and earlier, irrespective of their workloads, with a built-in assumption that they won't be on time anyway.

Why could this be bad? Well, it (a) exudes a lack of trust and (b) forces the people around you to prioritize the work you give earlier than needed, simply because you don't trust them.

The solution? Well, you could just trust them to deliver by the original deadline... Or, you could make a spreadsheet to track the contributions and invite the contributors to set their own deadlines in the spreadsheet, being aware of your final deadline.

Perverse variation: I have been confronted a handful of times with people who impose deadlines on me that were already in the past...

Closing thoughts

So this wraps up a first listing of microscopic office crimes. I'll probably do one more installment of this later on, and possibly if people enjoy reading about these ;).

For the subscribers I'll provide a link to some (cringe?)worthy content arguing the opposite viewpoint on appointment confirmation...


Header courtesy of Alexas Photos (

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